Digital Health in Europe: time to rectify a massive missed opportunity
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Frank Boermeester Frank Boermeester - June 28 2014

Here’s a scenario to ponder. Certain advances in technology (internet, mobile, sensors) have opened up opportunities to radically improve healthcare. Bright minds all over Europe are coming up with interesting ideas to apply new technologies in healthcare. Europe’s best entrepreneurs are taking on those ideas and turning them into ambitious well-run startups. University researchers and clinicians are adding to the idea pool and testing the effectiveness of new applications. And Europe’s smartest money is flowing to the best ideas, teams and technologies. In a matter of a few years, healthcare has been utterly transformed. The use of telemedicine is widespread, which means Europe’s best medical brains are now being put to use over much larger patient populations. Most people are avid users of health-tracking and health-improvement technologies, taking far more responsibility for their own health and well-being. And medical research is riding high on the back of the Big Data revolution.
 
It should have played out this way; unfortunately it didn’t – or at least not yet.
 
Over the past 3-4 years my two partners (Bart Collet and Leo Exter) and I at HealthStartup have organised or co-organised numerous hackathons, conferences and acceleration programmes in Europe’s digital health scene. We had high hopes that we’d see some real breakthroughs in the way healthcare is practiced and organised.  Unfortunately we haven’t. 
 
While there certainly is excitement about the digital health promise, with governments across Europe falling over their feet to launch new healthcare-related ‘innovation’ programs and entrepreneurs everywhere launching new acceleration programs, hackathons and funds (we’ll include us in that latter category) to somehow tap into the digital health gold rush, it all unfortunately doesn’t add up to much. Individually, the vast majority of these initiatives are just too darn weak: bad ideas (and mostly rehashed bad ideas), inexperienced teams, lack of support from healthcare stakeholders, and little to no funding.  Sometimes we get the impression that all the talent and money is going to the entities on the periphery (the new government agencies, the acceleration programmes, etc) as opposed to the startups themselves. And with few startups punching through to scale, without widespread experimentation and adoption of new technologies, there simply is no digital health revolution to speak of.  We’re all tinkering away within our local markets, applauding ourselves for having organised yet another bootcamp or startup weekend, when in most cases we made absolutely no impact on healthcare or the wider economy.  
 
So what’s the problem? In our opinion the root cause of our meagre harvest to date is fragmentation: sectorial fragmentation and geographic fragmentation. The digital health scene will only flourish properly if five reasonably distinct (distinct in a cultural sense, in the way of working, in the way they’re financed, etc) sectors, i.e. healthcare, academia/universities, corporate, government and off course the startup scene start working together much better than they do today, and most importantly, that they do so across 27 states. 
 
If you have an innovative idea you’re likely not the first to have that idea. In a place like Silicon Valley one or two conversations will usually be enough to know whether you’re on to something new or interesting or whether there’s a startup down the road six months ahead of you. In Europe, there could be 27 different versions being produced simultaneously with none knowing about the others. A truly great idea deserves pan-European visibility, it should attract the best entrepreneurs we got, the smartest money, and the most innovative partners (corporate, healthcare providers, governments) to help scale it rapidly.
 
Question is, how can we encourage or facilitate that level of pan-European efficiency in the way ideas, talent and money find each other?
 
Here’s a few thoughts on that:
 
Acceleration programmes: numerous programmes have emerged in the wake of Rock Health, ranging from shorter 3-month programs (Healthbox, Blueprint Health, HealthXL) to longer ‘immersive’ programs linked to hospitals (New York Digital Health Accelerator) to even longer mentoring programmes such as Startup Health. Our impression here is that the biggest, most reputable programs have by far the most impact: they attract the best talent, the best partners, the most money, the most PR and visibility, etc.  In Europe it doesn’t strike us as very useful to build local/national programmes.  Two or three well-funded, well-partnered, well-organised pan-European programmes would have a far bigger impact than 27 local programmes. 
 
Hackathons: we’ve seen some great initiatives like NHS Hack Day, Hacking Health and Health Hack Day, and we’ve co-organised a few ourselves.  We think they’re a super-efficient way to generate ideas, test ideas, and build and test teams. However, we think they’re more effective if one, you provide real world challenges provided by healthcare providers and other potential buyers, and two if you ask experienced entrepreneurs to take the initiative in building teams. Otherwise, the event will suffer from bad/unrealistic/infeasible ideas and inexperienced teams. Furthermore, a pan-European or travelling hack festival would be really powerful to help facilitate the flow of ideas and talent across Europe.
 
University linked programmes such as Hacking Medicine MIT or the classic tech transfer offices most big EU universities now have are important, no doubt. There is huge amount of potential IP that entrepreneurs could work with.  But again, most such initiatives seem too local and modest. At our international conferences we’ve seen time and again that beautiful aha moment when a research team and a startup team discover they’re working on exactly the same thing but from two hugely complimentary angles (researchers are busy validating a particular technology or application; startups are busy building a commercial proposition for that same technology). Tech transfer offices should link up and feed their nascent projects to bigger pan-European acceleration programmes and in this way also open the filter more. 
 
Educational programmes: Digital health sits on the crossroads of technology, business and healthcare. And thus, not surprisingly, there is a dearth of talent. Doctors and academics rarely become technology entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs and developers are understandably reticent to make forays in such a protected highly regulated sector as healthcare. We think there is a need for fast-track educational programmes that prepare people for a career in the digital health field. Interdisciplinary programmes like MOEBIO in Barcelona, itself modeled on Stanford’s Biodesign Fellowship, are showing the way. 
 
Summarising the above points, we’re looking for programmes that are truly pan-European in scope and scale; we’re looking for programmes that produce the best possible talent, that filter out the most promising IP, and that have the power to accelerate projects into global companies.
 
There is one other missing link in this story and that’s what we are hoping to offer with the revamped HealthStartup.
 
What’s missing is the online glue connecting Europe’s digital health scene. Who are the people (whether entrepreneurs, doctors, investors, policy makers or others) active in the field? What are they working on? What are the most promising ideas and projects that people are working on? What resources are available, Europe-wide, suited to different stages of a project? With HealthStartup we’d like bring a crowd-sourced answer to those questions – and any other questions that digital health innovators may have about their ideas, technologies, markets and potential resources.  
 
To be clear, we’re not building a social network, there are enough of those; on the contrary, we’re creating a business building tool that helps people generate, test and fine-tune their ideas, that helps people find talent and create teams, and that connects the best teams and ideas with the most relevant funds and support programmes out there – all at a pan-European level.
 
We hope you’ll join us.  And do let us know what you think, comment below, or call us, we’re all ears.

Comments

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    Johan Goris Johan Goris ( June 29 2014 04:51 )

    Great article, great initiative,

    you can count on me for the med-tech educating part if needed!

    Maybe set up a multidisciplinary think tank to detect innovation priorities (local, national and European) after analysis and comparision of what already exists + discover market gaps , …
    and use the output as a dynamic canvas.

    Johan Goris

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