Health is an industry with a great deal of investment in research and development, but there's sometimes a perception that R&D tax relief goes mostly to the pharmaceutical companies. Although there's a lot of qualifying activity that does take place in such companies, it's certainly not the be-all and end-all of R&D in the health sector.

Lately, there has been a particularly intense period of successful research and development with respect to products designed to help people facing long-term difficulties, whether due to disabilities or due to other long-term health conditions. Many of these efforts towards research and development are inspired not by profit but by a genuine desire to help others and improve quality of life as much as possible. Here’s a list of notable examples.

R&D in bionics and prosthetics

As we’ve mentioned before in our article on medical R&D, there are a lot of exciting medical breakthroughs in bionics, mobility, and ability. Incredibly moving videos – such as the video embedded above of Joanna Milne hearing sound for the first time – are becoming more common. Prosthetics are an exciting area of research because there are so many different directions to take the research in, and the work undertaken has the potential to be truly life-changing. Whether you’re interested in convenient prostheses for everyday usage or in the most advanced blades for the most cutting-edge sports, whether you work on the limbs themselves or on perfecting fastening technology, there’s a vast amount of technical uncertainty to resolve.

Industrial design companies like Fripp Design, as well as smaller and more dedicated 3D printing companies, have developed increasingly impressive 3D printing technologies designed to create affordable, effective prosthetics. These often focus on areas such as the face, where traditional prosthetics can be extremely expensive due to the high level of detail required and the amount of variation between individuals needs. In this area, 3D printing can save the huge amounts of money required for bespoke creations – and in the process it allows for more interesting and fashionable designer prosthetics.

The rapid design and production allowed by 3D printing means that it is even possible to create effective 3D printed prosthetics for animals, which would usually have been a prohibitively complicated and expensive procedure.

Virtual and augmented reality

Alongside 3D printing, virtual reality research and development represents a significant step forwards for technical and manufacturing companies, but raises questions for many people living with health conditions. How can accessibility be guaranteed with such a unique and fundamentally bodily method of interaction? There are already obstacles to, for example, blind or partially-sighted individuals enjoying video games or using some kinds of rich web applications. Don’t virtual reality and augmented reality solutions threaten to exacerbate this digital divide?

Certainly this is the case for the most noticeable virtual and augmented reality devices, the highly visual Oculus Rift and HoloLens. There’s more to VR than the visual, though, as haptic (touch-based) VR devices are increasingly showing an awareness of design possibilities. Haptic VR devices are already picking up steam in the press with devices such as KorFX being covered from the BBC to Polygon. That offers hope for the future, but there are already ways in which augmented reality is being used to help people with disabilities.

The Third Age Simulation Suit is one such augmented reality device, using an inverted approach to show designers and product developers what it is like to be older and perhaps less comfortable. This approach enables developers to make even devices that are not directly targeted at disabled people to be more ergonomic in ways that accommodate people with arthritis or other conditions that hamper mobility.


Wearables overlap significantly with the promise of Virtual and Augmented Reality. Google Glass, for example, is simply a light-weight Augmented Reality device. The difference between what is commonly considered a “Wearable” and what is commonly considered a “VR/AR device” is in some cases a difference of degrees. Some wearables are simply lighter, less immersive VR or AR devices that you are expected to wear at all times rather than in short bursts.

In this context, there is huge potential for disability research and development. As an extension of VR and AR research, such efforts are aimed at making these same devices and this same technology smaller and easier to wear could be essential for moving augmented reality into disabled people’s lives. By creating wearables that are simple and useful, or directly integrated with clothing, data can also be collected that feeds back into the research and development cycle – informing everything from the design of prosthetics to new ways to detect emergency events.

Some of the promise of wearables, at least, lies in how they might help people with less severe conditions. EnChroma in particular have achieved viral success due to videos showing new EnChroma users experiencing a small but powerful change to how they see the world (warning: strong language).

EnChroma helps wearers who have certain forms of colour blindness in which the red and green cones overlap too much to see the full spectrum of colour. This relatively minor sight impairment has a marked effect on the quality and richness of life, and is now easy to fix thanks to EnChroma’s research into their sunglasses.

Thinking about disability for every product

In a world where functional design is such an important part of product design, and where so many people live with disabilities and health conditions, it’s very strange indeed to see so many products poorly devised for people with disabilities. Research and development into bionics, augmented reality and wearables highlights technical uncertainties that could and should be resolved to the benefit of disabled customers everywhere. The knowledge and the mindset from this research can be incorporated into the design of all products, not just products explicitly designed for people with disabilities and health conditions.

This sort of research and development is especially important because the ever-expanding resources available to many people through networked computers may not be available to some due to a lack of thought when it comes to the design of the (physical or virtual) interface. Resolving the scientific and technical uncertainties around functional design for disabled users is exactly the sort of activity that HMRC R&D tax credits seek to incentivise.

Resolving uncertainty and ForrestBrown

If you are already resolving scientific or technical uncertainty related to disability or long-term health conditions, you should get in touch with ForrestBrown for an obligation-free chance to discuss your options.

Contact us and arrange a free consultation, read more about our thoughts on medical innovation or learn more about R&D tax credits. You could be able to claim a significant amount of research and development tax relief, and as leading R&D tax specialists we would love to see if we could work well together.

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