The MedTech startups grappling with tomorrow’s health challenges

CTOs, CEOs and founders explain how their companies are powering the next generation of digital healthcare systems

COVID-19 has shown how important it is for governments across the world to co-ordinate if they’re to rise to the medical challenges of the future. Healthcare and medical technology (MedTech) startups, too, are working to revolutionise everything from front-line care to genetics. Although the pandemic has thrown up barriers to their success, it’s also offered new opportunities by changing the way we think about how care is delivered.

It’s a great time to be working in the sector and to be launching new products, according to Sano Genetics’ CTO, William Jones, whose company offers genetic testing services alongside partnering with major universities on healthcare studies. This is because startups are enjoying a strong funding environment, with MedTech at the forefront of public consciousness. For example, apps such as ZOE COVID Study, developed by Kings College London (KCL), which monitors the spread of COVID-19, helped to establish health-related platforms as being key to allowing people’s daily lives to continue. 

“On the one hand,” he says, “[COVID-19] has caused delays in clinical research, dramatically shifted company priorities, and slowed decision-making in bureaucratic companies. It’s also reminded us how important medical infrastructure is for society, and it’s highlighted challenges the industry faces are great opportunities for ambitious startups.”

Personalising digital healthcare is crucial

As Jones observes, a common issue for many startups has been ongoing delays to clinical research due to lockdowns and social distancing measures. This has hampered the capacity for some startups to grow or apply for more investment due to the lack of data streaming into their platforms to be analysed, and, ultimately, add credence to their models.

Despite this barrier, LovedBy founder Matt Farrar believes innovation in both wearables and artificial intelligence (AI) is ripe. The firm, which he founded three years ago after his 12-year-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, uses technology and nudge theory to improve the lives of adolescents with chronic conditions. Farrar brought together behavioural specialists, neurologists, consultants and coders to pursue this vision, and he cites “personalisation” as a key area of focus for the MedTech sector to make it relevant to those it’s serving.

“Connected systems, data, private and public healthcare collaboration, and improved end-user mobile capability – all of these open up opportunities to contextualise and personalise advice,” he says. “The prospect of being aware of what I can do on a micro, hyper-personalised level to maintain my health in a simple monthly and affordable subscription, using accessible consumer tech, is fascinating.”

He warns, however, that regulations on medical devices and data protection remain a significant and expensive hurdle for startups seeking to launch in this area. “The regulation that protects lives and personal data is an obvious necessity,” he continues. “All MedTech startups should know they’ll need to build the legal and infrastructure costs into their business plan.

“You do need to have good compliance partnerships early in your company’s development to help you navigate the detail. As you gain traction, revenue, and success, you should work with your product teams to ensure that the privacy and data security changes are baked into your roadmap. In addition, you really need to think about your aspirational target geographies. For instance, compliance in the EU is very different from compliance in the US, so understand early the impact this could have on your technology stack or choice of cloud infrastructure.”

Preaching to the technologically uninitiated

Another challenge for MedTech startups is ensuring that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, understand the value of what they’re offering. Dag Larsson, CEO of Doccla, which provides virtual wards to NHS trusts, suggests buy-in from clinicians to technological change is still tough to achieve.

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“At an everyday level, clinicians tend to be incredibly wary of new technologies and approaches to their working lives,” he explains. “In our experience, we know that new technologies can appear, on the surface, as more work to get used to, but, by being the helping hand and guiding them through those first few days, almost all clinicians recognise the value. Some even go on to champion the tech for use among different patient groups.  

“The other challenge is to introduce change at scale,” he continues. “Healthcare is a phenomenally complicated ecosystem, with so many interdependencies and separate decision-makers, all set in the context of tight regulation and risk aversion. As a result, it can take years to make headway if you don’t have the right strategy.”

Cracking that strategy can, however, pay dividends, though, with Larsson explaining how Doccla experienced five years of growth within three months when asked to deliver virtual wards to cope with COVID-19. The company was, during the pandemic, tasked with keeping the most vulnerable patients away from hospitals to minimise any infections acquired there.

“Organisations like NHSX are breaking down the barriers for MedTech startups, like ours, to have a huge impact,” he adds. “They recognise our ability to listen to the needs of NHS trusts and move quickly to provide the right technology easily, with minimal disruption.”

Data from wearables, in-home monitoring to ease pressure on health services, and greater use of the Internet of Things (IoT), are all growth areas for MedTech. Dr James Somauroo, co-founder of health technology innovation agency SomX, points to a number of startups as examples of companies putting forward technologies to handle today’s challenges well. These include the likes of Ampersand Health, which develops apps to help patients living with chronic conditions communicate with clinicians, and Feebris, an AI platform that takes vital signs from people at risk of illness, such as those living in care homes. 

He also highlights, until recently, there hasn’t been a clear, safe and effective platform to overcome the lack of interoperability between health startups, internal NHS systems, and a lack of patient access to data. Privacy, and the security of data, are both huge issues in healthcare that, he continues, are literally a matter of life and death.

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