How ME start-ups are shaping the future of healthcare

From wearable healthy living devices to ‘digital house calls’, healthcare is entering a new phase



Throughout history, healthcare pioneers have worked tirelessly to develop new ways to treat, prevent and understand illness and injury.

From prehistoric man’s dentistry drills, through the ancient Egyptian public health system, past Islam’s golden age of medicine, to the modern era’s global health networks and technological advances, the industry has relied on small groups of people to drive it forward.

Today, entrepreneurs have started to take centre stage – less in a bid to find new remedies or treatments, but more to improve access, operating models, analytics, and find tech-related solutions.

Innovators across the globe have reacted to technological advancements by moving to solve a raft of health challenges in recent years. Whether it’s reaching and diagnosing people in rural communities, streamlining costs, developing wearable healthcare devices or building support networks, new businesses have risen to the challenge of taking the industry into its next phase.

With a burgeoning middle class, growing elderly population, larger number of people suffering from chronic diseases and conditions, and a lack of resources, the healthcare industry has been put under enormous pressure of late.

This is particularly true for the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The World Bank suggests that by 2030, non-communicable diseases like diabetes will account for 87 per cent of all deaths in the GCC, and 81 per cent in other MENA countries. This kind of statistic led Al Masah Capital to forecast in its 2014 MENA Healthcare Sector report that the region would need 360,000 new hospital beds and 150,000 new physicians to meet its medical needs by 2020.

To alleviate this strain, healthcare start-ups have devised a wave of new solutions – primarily in the realm of digital health.

In a study by GE and Wamda entitled MENA’s Health Startups – Unlocking the Path to Scale & the Future of Healthcare, the authors stated that mobile health, connected health, health IT and digital hospitals, digital therapeutics, data and analytics, and 3D printing and hardware are the most prevalent forms of digital health activity.

The whitepaper also revealed that regional players – particularly in Egypt and the UAE – have made “significant strides” in digital health, which has opened up the potential to improve high rates of unemployment by creating new jobs and a localised supply chain within the sector.

Take UAE-based AlemHealth, for example, which provides a link between underserved patients in developing countries with healthcare experts across the world – a model also offered by Jordanian company Altibbi.

WebTeb in Palestine and Sohati in Lebanon are among the new businesses providing comprehensive health and medical information in the Arabic-language, while UAE firm 3eesho uses a social network framework to help solve the obesity problem, using engaging content and expert consultancy. These companies are keeping patients informed and health-minded, as well as reducing demand for hospital beds – an important boost for regional hospitals.

In Egypt, Nabda Care has built a cloud-based platform to improve home-based diabetes care and Shezlong provides private and anonymous psychotherapy sessions between patients and therapists.

Outside the Middle East, start-ups are leading the pack in other ways. Medwand, for example, has been billed as a ‘21st century digital house call’ – aimed at bringing telemedicine to those who can’t easily get to a doctor’s surgery such as working parents and people with mobility issues or living in rural areas. The device takes basic vital readings and can connect with other equipment to provide a comprehensive health check.

In New York City, a new app called Pager has positioned itself as the Uber of healthcare, bringing urgent care or medical supplies to your doorstep within two hours. Another app – SkinVision – allows you to take a photograph of a mole or skin growth and receive a diagnosis, course of action, and contact with a dermatologist if necessary.

Whether general or niche, localised or global, these products and services have capitalised on technology to ease processes and procedures for patients, healthcare professionals, and the hospitals they work in.

But while the rise of the digital health market across the Middle East may be helping to solve a number of healthcare challenges, there are still clear difficulties for the start-ups looking to innovate within the industry.

Traditional hurdles such as funding and talent acquisition are joined by more niche concerns such as regulatory issues, data security and securing industry expertise.

Add to that the fact that tech giants such as Google, IBM and Apple are investing heavily in healthcare, and you could make a strong argument that the odds are stacked against the entrepreneurs.

But with the global digital health market expected to be valued at $233bn by 2020, the opportunities still outweigh the challenges. And there’s proof that success is within reach.

Take Boston-based diabetes giant Intarcia Therapeutics, for example. Earlier this year private investors valued the company at $5.5bn and the firm continually raises multi million dollar rounds of funding – necessary injections of capital given the numerous clinical trials and regulatory approvals it needs to go through.

Then there’s $3.3bn San Francisco-based firm Jawbone, which creates consumer tech and wearable devices designed to help people live a healthier life, and big data cancer analytics company NantHealth which is believed to be worth $2bn and counts the government of Kuwait among its investors.

These aren’t isolated cases. Biotech start-up Moderna Therapeutics has been valued at $3bn, Proteus Digital Health is said to be worth $1.1bn, and China’s Guahao $1.5bn.

Perhaps topping them all is cancer drug firm Stemcentrx, which pharmaceutical giant AbbVie announced it would acquire in a deal worth up to $10.2bn.

Healthcare start-ups are big news at the moment, and while very few can expect to grow as big as those mentioned, the appetite for investment is clearly strong.

The drive of entrepreneurs to innovate and make it easier for people to get the care they need has resulted in improvements in coverage, diagnosis, communication and more. With the market backing up their value and importance, start-ups in the GCC should be encouraged to continue their disruption of the regional healthcare industry.