While a lot will be written in the history books about the adverse fallout brought upon by COVID-19, this worldwide phenomenon did bring with it a silver lining: a necessary push for further digitalization.
Pandemic or not, the world had to go on, and as a result, concepts like remote working, which most companies have historically been against, became a widespread norm for many jobs and roles. E-commerce boomed - so did online food delivery.
However, and perhaps the most crucial of all, was the healthcare sector’s digital transformation. With lockdowns in effect, many patients resorted to healthtech apps and digital services to stay in touch with medical professionals, introducing a medium for the industry to explore and innovate.
Plug and Play Abu Dhabi, the UAE branch of one of the world's largest early-stage startup support platforms, led the charge last year when it introduced the MENA region’s first-ever healthtech startup accelerator, in collaboration with the Department of Health - Abu Dhabi (DoH).
The ADGM based entity kicked off its second cohort this year, normalizing the push for healthtech innovation in the region once and for all.
The Abu Dhabi SME Hub spoke with Dr. Louiza Chitour, HealthTech Program and Partnerships Manager, Plug and Play Abu Dhabi, to learn more about their accelerator's activities and aspirations for MENA.
Last year, Plug and Play and the DoH launched the MENA region's first health tech accelerator, Health Plug and Play MENA. Why is there a need for health tech innovation in the region right now?
I think the launch of the first health dedicated accelerator in the MENA region was timely as it coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic which only exacerbated the need for the healthcare sector to rapidly transform in order to meet the demands of patients for value-based healthcare services in an increasingly digital world.
Disruption was previously reserved to sectors like travel, financial services, and e-commerce, where technology changed the way the consumer would avail these services. Unfortunately, until recently, this disruption was missing in the healthcare sector where patients were still requested to fill paper forms, book an appointment with their doctors through a phone call with reception or purchase their prescription drugs by physically going to the pharmacy store.
The pandemic and lockdown that ensued didn't allow for any of these physical interactions, which is why digitalization became critical to ensure the continuity of healthcare services and forced a quick adoption of technology by both the patients and the caregivers.
What were the greatest takeaways of your first startup cohort last year? Any particular challenges or trends you witnessed across the board?
I believe that one of the biggest learnings from last year's cohort is that there is an acute need to de-risk the interaction between startups and corporate partners (insurance, provider, or industry player) by explaining the value of a tech solution or innovation and how it can potentially solve pain points they have or allow the creation of new products or services these stakeholders can offer their patients.
I would attribute that to the industry's general risk aversion as the stakes are higher than in any other industry and related to the patient's physical wellbeing which is of paramount importance.
Therefore, changing the mindset around the different ways they could interact with a startup while keeping the risks to the minimum is key to boosting tech adoption in the sector.
What do you hope to achieve with this year's cohort?
This year's cohort, titled “The Future of Health," aims to capitalize on the disruption that the pandemic has created in terms of remote patient monitoring and digitalizing chronic disease management to empower patients to take ownership of their health while providing their physicians with the necessary data and insights to adjust and personalize the treatment plan and adapt it to that patient's needs.
Hence, we have within our cohort several solutions from around the world to make that possible with Sidekick Health and Perx Health making the lives of patients with chronic diseases easier, or Nutrimis helping thousands join a community and be adequately coached to lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Furthermore, the cohort includes solutions that disrupt the way we approach healthcare with TestCard allowing patients to obtain laboratory services and insights in the comfort of their homes or Predictiv, the first DNA-based digital twin, which is now establishing a presence in Abu Dhabi to make personalized medicine and preventive care a reality for the UAE population by analyzing +20,000 genes to screen for more than 22,500 diseases.
The first-ever in-person Abu Dhabi Health Innovation Board meeting at the Arab Health Exhibition.
What are the different ways in which your program supports health tech startups?
Our programs at Plug and Play tend to be highly customized and tailored to each cohort's needs. Therefore, before the start of each programme we have an overview of each and every startup's expectations and goals entering the program to allow us to design and deliver the most relevant sessions for them.
This could include matching them with relevant mentors to help them carve out the best go-to-market (GTM) strategy for the region, VCs’ deal flows for the startups looking to raise funds in the region, or lastly dedicated workshops that would equip them with the right tools they would need should they decide to set up operations in Abu Dhabi as their Middle Eastern HQ.
Looking forward, what do you hope to achieve in the next few years?
We have been and will continue to tirelessly work towards making Abu Dhabi and the Middle East a vibrant hub for innovation where more cutting edge innovations could emerge from the region and scale across the globe while continuing to ensure a smooth landing for global disruptors to bring their solutions to the Middle East and allow patients and consumers in the region to benefit from world-class healthcare services.