WBJ talked to Dr. Zsuzsanna Varga, global program manager Grants4apps at Bayer and Bogusław Tobiasz, head of IT for CEE at Bayer about the potential of healthtech start-ups in CEE and Europe
WBJ: What possibilities does digital patient support create? Dr. Zsuzsanna Varga: Firstly, we can see a lot of underserved patients in developing countries get access to healthcare thanks to telemedicine. For instance, in some countries the ratio of physician to patient is highly suboptimal, like 1:10,000 or worse. This is a very important aspect of our innovation: apart from research, biotech and digital health, we also support social innovation.
What is the current state of digital healthcare in Europe? How common are health wearables and what can you do with the data they collect?
Z.V.: The use of devices such as wearables for tracking activity data is very widespread. The collected data can be used to provide important insights, for example input for a more accurate diagnosis. In particular, the usage of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies can help by accurately discerning symptoms. So the focus shifts from the “How” in collecting data to the “Why”: Which insights can we generate and for which purpose? At the end of the day, however, the final diagnosis lies with the physician. Data analytics tools can support, but not replace a physician and clinicians.
Which technologies are developing most quickly in healthcare right now?
Z.V.: We’re already passed the stage of collecting data – we do it on a mass scale. What is developing right now is the insights we can get from the data, so data analytics: AI and machine learning.
How important are start-ups in this ecosystem?
Z.V.: They’re a crucial player in the innovation system. We as a company cannot access patients directly due to regulations. Start-ups, on the other hand, are founded by patients and physicians, who have firsthand knowledge of what the patients need and what the limitations and challenges of the doctor-patient interaction are.
Are Polish HealthTech start-ups competitive in Europe?
Z.V.: Last year we had over 400 applications for our Grants4Apps start-up Accelerator from all over the world. Poland was fourth out of 66 countries. Based on this alone we can see that Poland is a big innovation and tech hub for healthcare.
What do you offer start-ups who qualify for Grants4Apps?
Bogusław Tobiasz: We offer them a framework – free-of-charge office space for 100 days and mentoring, which is absolutely crucial at the early stage. We show them how to make a product they’re working on successful and make it ready to roll out on the global market. They also receive €50,000 seed funding.
How do you select the companies for the program?
B.T.: It’s a global initiative so we get applications from all over the world. We’re focusing on pharma and healthcare solutions.
Z.V.: We’re interested both in early stage start-ups – the ones that have a working prototype at least – for the accelerator as well as in mature start-ups, which are already on the market and have gained some traction. We introduced a new element this year, called “Dealmaker,” which is intended for the more mature start-ups specifically, ready to enter a collaboration with Bayer.
What kind of technologies are your applicants working on?
Z.V.: There are a lot of applications in the areas of telemedicine. Solutions for pharmacy also seem to be a big trend as well as solutions for the elderly. This patient sector is growing, as the population is aging, and there is an increasing public notion that elderly should have a better quality of life and access to medical care.
What technologies in healthcare do you think will come in five years’ time?
Z.V.: There are already some technologies being developed that may help improve and shorten the research and development process in Pharma. Currently, it takes about 10 years from discovery to bringing a product to market and accessible to patients. There is a lot of room for improvement and there are start-ups developing technologies that introduce more computer-based simulations that can accelerate drug research and development. We had a start-up from Hungary called Turbine that created a simulation of cancer cells to test different combinations of drugs that could be more effective in killing cancer cells. Other technologies like organs-on-chip have the potential to revolutionize how we find effective drugs for patients faster.