What challenges and resources do health tech entrepreneurs need to know about?
The Nordic region is good at supporting drug and device development. But how do health technology ideas such as apps and algorithms for patient tracking and virtual doctor visits get to market?
User input, teamwork, and local resources led the Norwegian company Ably Medical “from nothing two years ago to now,” says CEO Kjell Are Furnes.
Ably has 16 employees and a prototype next-generation hospital bed, made with a Germany car design company used by BMW and VW, that is in testing in Canada.
Kjell Are Furnes
Hospital personnel were codesigners of the bed, which aims to reduce patient falls and pressure sores and patient lifting by nurses. The bedframe wirelessly measures patient factors such as respiration, temperature, and movement. Ably will use machine learning to find patterns in patient data and alert nurses to changes in patients’ state.
The Ably team’s biggest challenge, Furnes says, was lack of experience with medical standards regulations. The solution was smart hiring.
“We have people who can build processes and systems according to standards but also work with our creative people so they continue giving input,” he says. “It all comes down to the team.”
Furnes also advises “going global,” as Ably has done in building and testing its product.
“The Nordic market is small, so go out in the world to test applicability,” he says. “And don’t worry that everything is 100 percent ready first.”
Furnes recommends regional clusters like Norway Health Tech. “They opened doors for us in different countries,” he says, “and gave us incubator space.”
In Denmark and Sweden, the Medicon Valley cluster has similar assistance. Government programs such as Innovation Norway and Vinnova in Sweden offer startup support including funds.
Nordic industries and governments promote digital development, including in healthcare. In 2018, for instance, the public-private partnership Digital Hub Denmark launched, with about $15 million over 5 years to encourage tech businesses.
Several other initiatives promote tech startups from academic groups. Jonas Tyle Petersen runs Digital Innovation Hub, a collaboration of University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen Business School, and Technical University of Denmark (DTU). In addition to space at DTU Skylab, students, researchers, and external partners get startup mentoring. The Hub just gave funds to five healthcare startups for artificial intelligence (AI) or clinical consulting. Future resources, Petersen says, include an AI mentor network and hackathons for solving tech startup problems.
University of Copenhagen students with a health startup idea can apply for a year of incubator space and advising at SUND Hub. All teams must have a university student but many include business and health professionals, says Hub Manager Martin B. Justesen.
Martin B Justesen. Photo: Michae Sørensen
Students at the IT University of Copenhagen can join the ITU Startup Programme. Manager Vlad Gidea says teams get personalized advice about financing, legal, and regulatory issues and potentially an expense account of $5000 to generate a prototype product.
The program “prepares teams for the real world of business,” Gidea says, for example, helping them find partners and get financial, legal, and accounting services.
When health tech entrepreneurs are asked about needs, they consistently say access to data, infrastructure, and people. They need data to develop, train, test, and refine AI innovations. They need infrastructure to grow. They need people for partnerships and even product ideas. For example, Ably began by asking hospital personnel about their needs and how technology can help.
Furnes praises the region for startup support, but says Nordic countries could be more like Germany in offering funds and resources for transitioning to an industry, which is when true return on investment occurs. Startups that must raise capital for machines and factories might turn to international investors who could take the industry – and its taxes – abroad.
Petersen notes that identifying partners at a large organization like a health system or corporation is hard. He hopes pharma and medical device companies will reach out to the tech startup community. “We have a lot to offer and want to connect these industries to talent at the region’s universities,” he says, “One of these startups could be the next Novo Nordisk.”
Gidea agrees, saying tech teams are ready to work with pharma and device companies. He’d like more “sandboxes,” in which startups or small companies get to pilot ideas with corporations, trying out innovations in their sector.
Justesen wants more interactions between health facilities and entrepreneurs, so innovators connect to people who have knowledge about everyday problems and data that might help solve them. He suggests bringing startup teams to hospitals and clinics so they experience the space and challenges.
“Give us a profound understanding of the problem and access to data and people we can work with and we can help solve it,” he says.
DTU Innovation Hub