Christos Vaitsis: “Innovation in health is not easy to stumble upon”
Christos talked about EIT Health - European network of life science entrepreneurs and innovators at sTARTUp Day.
This interview was conducted by Saale Tartes.
You have been in Estonia before and have met health care and medical students here. In your opinion, how informed are they of the possibilities about startups?
EIT Health Scandinavia has a representative in Tartu, a colleague of mine, Merike Leego. She transmits information to and from the University of Tartu, which is one of our core partners. Merike is the one Estonian students can approach when desiring information about Estonian systems, activities in MediHealth and innovation projects. Accelerator activities targeting students and startups on campuses are well prepared to help with applications and participation information. I’m satisfied to see one of our partners this active, but we aim to go even further.
You have previously worked as a Researcher and a Course Director in the field of Contemporary Technologies in Health at Karolinska Institute. It is one of the world's foremost medical universities. Are Estonian students different comparing to Swedish ones? In what ways?
Estonia has an attractive philosophy to fully digitizing processes and aspects of society. Even students have a more entrepreneurial mindset, reflecting the Estonian culture. It’s something you don’t come across in Karolinska Institute, which is primarily medicine focused. The technical knowledge is strong, but I would say, even stronger in Estonia.
If I were a student and had an innovative idea - where should I start to set up a startup?
If you have an idea, you should start by validating the idea in a specific market. We at EIT Health have boot camps dedicated to idea validation which are accepting applications from students and even early-stage startups. This year we have six boot camps all over Europe. There are boot camps for MedTech, BioTech, Digital Health, and general e-health solutions. If selected, students could receive up to 10 000€ to cover travel and accommodation. Bootcamps usually last 3 months and students get to validate their business idea and pinpoint their market advantage.
How can startups establish themselves within those mentioned bootcamp topics?
This depends highly on the product-market fit. The product itself can be extremely interesting and innovative, but startups can be run over by competition in a crowded market. Therefore, they need to be very specific which market they want to enter and who are the big players they’re up against.
From experience, the most crucial starting point is identifying the kinds of expertise you have in the team. Complementing each other in research, technological and business aspect is a huge advantage.
I’ve seen startups whose innovative idea is held back by a lack of business knowledge. This will delay any development.
Health and health-related information are pretty sensitive topics – how easy is it to generate innovation in health?
It depends on your country. For example, in Karolinska, in Sweden, there’s a department dedicated to technology transfer. It’s a great resource for creating any spin-offs from medical research. As an early-stage company, you’ll find multiple funding opportunities provided by the Swedish government. Unfortunately, this isn’t common everywhere in Europe.
In addition, innovation in health is not easy to stumble upon. Depending on good research and ways to assess the idea in the desired environment.
Estonia has an attractive philosophy and culture when it comes to testing and developing ideas related to genome data. Citizens seem to adopt the idea and are willing to offer their own data.
Health records are confidential. Is there a way to leverage big data in the hands of private companies for the sake of the population?
There was a network in Sweden some years ago which provided patients access to their own medical history. The patients had the authority to grant access to doctors of their choice. Personally, I'm not in favor of this kind of idea. I don't believe everyone is capable to understand all the different medical terms and decide who to give access to.
When it comes to using this sort of data, we have an initiative called Digital Sandbox under EIT Health Scandinavia. It’s open to startups developing a health-related product looking to collaborating with Biobanks and Quality Registers in Europe.
Health data is widely unused because it is sensitive information, usually gathered through independent research. We aim to make this infrastructure of data available for startups in a protected and trusted context.
What kind of startups are the best in the field of health right now? Who should we keep an eye on?
In the last year alone, we supported more than 200 startups in Scandinavia, many of which from Estonia. We had an admirable participant last year - Triumf Health. I’m grateful for their contribution, including childhood obesity and mental health.
To be fair, I would also bring out startups from other Scandinavian countries. From Sweden, I would give a special mention to Data Medical. They have a medical device called Fail Safe Connector, removing the risk of infection when medical tubes get accidentally disconnected. And from Denmark, I see value in Radibotics. It's a startup using artificial intelligence for medical imaging.
Your website states that EIT Health brings together the brightest minds from the worlds of business, research, education and healthcare delivery to answer some of the biggest health challenges facing Europe. In your opinion, what kind of digital health solutions are the most needed right now?
There are different challenges at different levels, including demographic changes and people traveling between countries. Healthcare systems are overloaded with routine processes, where just adding new systems isn't solving the problems of efficiency. There are language barriers, especially due to immigration in recent years. We would still like to offer good health services for them, even though many don't have health coverage.
Then again, talking about European citizens, the average person is healthier than ever. This creates another type of challenge - ensuring the quality of life throughout the life expectancy. Living longer and healthier is one of our goals and we want people to have a good life even when retired.
European landscape and healthcare are so fragmented. Each country has its own regulations, responding to different demographic changes. We try to address this by developing solutions applicable in various cases.
You mentioned long term trends we can foresee. Having seen the process from inception to implementation of multiple innovations. How fast can we react to unexpected epidemics?
Reacting to global issues like viruses transmitting from one country to another, I believe our health care systems are quite fast-acting. We see cases of viruses spreading in days and we have mechanisms trying to prevent this. Research and business reaction time depends on what universities decide to focus on. It’s a privilege to launch a startup in Sweden because you’re surrounded by government innovation agencies and investment opportunities.
Early-stage startups grow incredibly fast. Raising big investment, over 10 million euros, is slower. This is a general issue across Europe because the landscape is fragmented. Thus, many startups look towards investment from the US. Trying to avoid fleeing startups, we have a program called Venture Center of Excellence bringing together EIT Health and European investment funds.
Which is harder, finding partners from the worlds of business, research, education OR healthcare specialists? How do you suggest finding specialists workers for a new and yet unknown startup?
Actually, I would advise startups to find what they’re missing. Looking at both - research and business side. Many think that covering research grants them instant business success and vice versa. There are three aspects that need to work together: research, business, and technology. I would suggest keeping the three in mind when evaluating your team’s skillset.
sTARTUp Day is organized by the University of Tartu, Tartu city, .Contriber, Tartu Science Park, Tartu Centre of Creative Industries, Tartu Biotechnology Park, Tartu Business Advisory Services, Ole Rohkem, and Swedbank. Altogether it took a team of 200 people to organize sTARTUp Day.
sTARTUp Day is sponsored by the European Regional Development Fund, Enterprise Estonia (EAS), Visit Estonia and Startup Estonia.