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GCC – the next frontier in healthcare?

I’ve always been a great believer in seeing for yourself and for a number of reasons, 2024 seemed to be the moment to visit Arab Health.

My previous visit a decade ago, working on renewable energy, had convinced me of the real commitment to finding solutions in that sector. I also knew that there has always been a strong interest in preventative health from our diagnostic and genetics clients. Two recent things tipped the balance – nothing to do with needing a bit of sun in January after a freezing UK December – and put me on the flight to Dubai. Firstly, our client LifeSpin has pivoted their business development to the region over the last 12 months, and secondly a recent article in the Economist that seemed to agree that KSI in particular, had a real opportunity to become a leader in AI, especially in its application to population health.

With more than 50,000 visitors, it sprawls across some 20 halls with many exhibitors forced to cling for space in the corridors.”

However, I have to start with an apology. I’ve been to some major shows over the last 30 years in the health/deep tech sector, but nothing prepared me for this. Arab Health is a monster, in the nicest possible way, and an overwhelming mess of a show. With more than 50,000 visitors, it sprawls across some 20 halls with many exhibitors forced to cling for space in the corridors. Over the three days I struggled to get my bearings and a coherent sense of all the themes, so forgive me if I have stuck to some key observations on AI and precision medicine and interviews with fellow attendees.

“Riyadh is becoming like Silicon Valley”

Finland and Estonia had pavilions, but Sweden was conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, most countries had multiple pavilions, none more so than Germany, which further divided them into states. LifeSpin were on the Bavarian one, which was managed by Torstein Wagner, who remembers the first Arab Health some 25 years ago, “It was actually held in tents. The transformation is incredible. We now have a waiting list for our pavilion. People come because it offers a meeting place, not just for GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council), but it is also increasingly providing a gateway to both Africa and Asia, and deals get done.”

Dr Ali Tinzali, CEO of LifeSpin, was equally enthusiastic. Ex-Sony and HP, he returned recently from Silicon Valley to set up the company in Germany and he sees more opportunities now in GCC and Asia than in his former base.

“The combined population of UAE and KSI is some 70 million, which gives critical mass as a market. Furthermore, you are within six hours of half of the world’s population. UAE is strong, but having visited five times in the last year I’ve noticed how KSI is really transforming. I’d go as far as to say Riyadh is becoming like Silicon Valley. The population is mostly under 50 and they are actively seeking healthcare innovation. They have the funds, the networks exist and the regulatory framework is far more flexible and conducive to new technologies and approaches than the FDA. Above all, there is a belief they can do things in a new way that will set an example for others,” he said.

The region faces challenges with an aging population, a growing demographic, and an increasing prevalence of lifestyle disorders.”

“The GCC nations are prioritizing the healthcare sector in economic diversification efforts away from oil production,” said Harshad Hussain, Editor the GCC health magazine MedEdge “The region faces challenges with an aging population, a growing demographic, and an increasing prevalence of lifestyle disorders. Recognizing these concerns, GCC nations are strategically focusing on healthcare to ensure sustainable development and meet the evolving healthcare needs of their populations.”

 

Left: The Finnish Pavilion. Of the Nordics, Finland and Denmark surprisingly were the only pavilions. Baltic neighbors Estonia were also present with both a pavilion and a keynote presentation in the Transformation Theater. Right: LifeSpin’s CEO Ali Tinazli has pivoted his precision medicine business development from the US to GCC because of the hunger for innovation and rapid transformation he sees in both UAE and KSI.

 

Regenerative AI

One reason for this belief is the emergence of regenerative AI, which dominated the conference program. To my mind it seems to fall into two camps. Firstly, you had the various US satellite hospitals in the region – Mayo, Dana Faber, Johns Hopkins, Cleveland, etc. – predicting it would help them deliver even better first-in-class precision treatments by streamlining processes, improving planning, informing decisions and reducing staff stress.

On the other hand, the local actors, such as PureHealth, M24, and the futuristic city of NEOM, seem to believe regenerative AI brings the goal of population health at a scale within reach in the very near future. The plan seems to be to leverage what PWC said is “phenomenal” population data to produce individual life plans. If followed, these would be a massive boost to GDP, ensuring a healthy and productive workforce. That seems reasonable, but there were a few unanswered/dismissed questions in the Q&As – such as what happens if you don’t follow the plan and the opinion that young people don’t care about health data privacy?

 

NEOM, the futuristic city in the desert, was of course one of the star attractions – notice the emphasis on health and wellbeing in their keynote.

 

Opposing views

So what’s next? While other countries have shown that buying innovation and trying to graft it onto the existing is difficult, moving to the next stage of generating your own innovation in a sustainable way is even harder. Here there were slightly opposing views about the region’s potential. Henry Taysom, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Creator Fund, attended especially to network with peers in a region that he has long seen as having entrepreneurial potential.

While other countries have shown that buying innovation and trying to graft it onto the existing is difficult, moving to the next stage of generating your own innovation in a sustainable way is even harder. Here there were slightly opposing views about the region’s potential.”

“I’ve followed GCC’s development from the outside during my time working in a hospital in Amman, and some time in Beirut. As such, I have only watched with interest as the path to diversification via innovation has played out. Of particular interest to me are funds such as Plug and Play, Global Ventures and, in Saudi Arabia, the hub known as the Garage. Likewise, Mubadala’s work with the UK’s NHS innovation program is a huge lynchpin for work between the UK and the region,” Taysom said.

When pressed on key learnings, he was at first slightly reticent. “Some of these would be a trade secret! I think the main one, with great thanks to a chance encounter with Dr. Khulood Alsayegh of the Dubai Health Authority, is the understanding the governments in the region have for regulatory plasticity (within essential limits), meaning that adoption of interesting technology is smoother. Couple this with a population that genuinely seems interested, or understanding of the need for this plasticity and associated understanding of the need for data for innovation, and you have a truly unique environment. Adding to this the microcosm of wider population-level health challenges that have out-sized effects or prevalence in the region, and the chance to come in, work within the structure and provide both meaningful insight and build your product is fascinating for many early-stage companies struggling to capture a foothold in the NHS (as an example) and don’t have the ability to bridge to the US,” Henry Tayson said.

Concluding on opportunities, Taysom was extremely positive. “As above, really this is a great place to build the early stages of good companies, because the need for innovation is supported by governmental work and by population-level support. It’s going to be a fascinating time as we see the real punch of this investment land over the next five years. I also truly hope that this drives transfection of the same stimulus to other countries in the MENA region.”

In slight contrast to this was the lone Swedish wolf I encountered, Petter Wolff from Sahlgrenska Science Park, who revealed he had come mainly to scout for deep tech innovations in health, but also to find out whether Dubai/UAE could be a market of interest for his startup companies.

“There is not a lot of infrastructure for accelerating deep tech innovations within health in Dubai as far as I can see. There was a Swedish pavilion several years ago, and that coincided with the Swedish company GHP trying to establish themselves in UAE. Business Sweden ran a side event linked to NEOM. The show was interesting particularly the AI presentations, but I feel it will be a number of years before Dubai or UAE finds the need to create a health system that is more integrated in research,” he said.

I’m not sure I agree with Petter. I tend more to side with Harry, so I left the sunshine behind for rainy Bath, enthused, bewildered and certain that this is not just a flash in the pan and that GCC should certainly be on the radar for anybody interested in how healthcare can and will be delivered, in probably the very near future.

This article was originally written by Richard Hayhurst for NLS magazine No 01 2024, out February 2024

Featured photo of Arab Health entrance 2024 and Richard Hayhurst (author)