Innovation in healthtech: How emerging Europe’s start-ups are turning Covid-19 challenges into opportunities

Healthtech start-ups in emerging Europe have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with a wealth of innovation.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has brought forth many challenges for most branches of industry, and start-ups in healthtech haven’t been spared. Indeed, as the world was thrust into uncertainty, some healthtech start-ups saw an opportunity for innovation and getting out new products that could help patients and medical staff as they deal with the Covid-19 fallout.

Several of these healthtech start-ups were part of the Health Venture Lab Reactor 2020 cohort, an accelerator where start-ups get a 4 month intensive training and an opportunity to pitch their innovations, supported by EIT Health Innostars, GE Healthcare, Catalyst Europe, and Capital Community.

HVL Reactor brings together stakeholders from the wider healthtech ecosystem, such as innovation hubs and universities, to facilitate research and development, and connect the start-ups with potential investors.

While congratulating the winning teams, Endre Ascsillan, HVL co-founder and vice president of GE in Hungary, explained how important startups are for the healthtech ecosystem.

“We cannot be here without you, without the start-upers who want to achieve something and have the idea and want to implement that idea. This is exactly why we have been started three years to build up this whole ecosystem surrounding the GE Digital Hub which is based in Budapest,” he says.

Balázs Fürjes, the managing director of EIT Health Innostars, expanded on what exactly HVL Reactor does for wider healthech community.

“We integrate local players into this network, investing into trust building, so we bring together the key players, we finance them until they understand and trust each other and develop a new programme that’s already sustainable,” Mr Fürjes said.

The HVL Reactor was ideal for the start-ups that took part, according to Jagoda Kowalik, technical account manager at Cardiomatics, one of the reactor’s participants.

“The private consultation sessions were valuable in terms of insight knowledge. What often happened was that one comment taken from a meeting brought about an important discussion within our team and opened our horizons a little bit more,” she explains.

Building ecosystems

According to Mr Fürjes, building ecosystems like these will help start-ups and innovators in Central and Eastern Europe to develop their products in the region.

“There is great talent and many ideas in the region, we cannot waste them. We have to support them to live up to their potential,” he says.

Similarly, Daniel Szemerey, the co-founder and director of HVL Reactor, is impressed with the quality of this year’s cohort.

“I was very inspired by this cohort, start-ups are actually really moving fast and they can deliver,” he said.

The participants in the HVL Reactor cohort are proof of Mr Fürjes’ and Mr Szemerey’s words about talent in the region. All the start-ups that participated created something new and innovative and that could be applied both during the current pandemic and after.

Take Cytocast, a Hungarian healthtech start-up that aims to revolutionise personalised treatment by integrating bioinformatics databases with patient data into computer models that can help understand the effects of perturbations of diseases and predict how drugs affect cellular health.

“The pandemic showed how innovative approaches could help in speeding up the response time in medicine,” says Atilla Csikász-Nagy, the CEO of Cytocast.

Speaking about the award Cytocast won at HVL Reactor — promising future for a medical professional — Mr Csikász-Nagy says it’s an honour to be recognised in such a way and explains the potential benefits of advanced mathematical modelling in the future.

“Indeed, we believe that we will soon reach a time when molecular diagnostics can profile patients in such details that we can use our method to select the best treatment for each individual… A few new diagnostic tools need to reach clinical use to provide the data that can be fed into our simulators, but we want to be ahead of the market and have our tool ready to digest these data and provide a solution for personalised medicine,” he says.

But the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t just an opportunity for Cytocast, there were challenges along the way too.

“The biggest challenge was that we needed to donate more time to switch to online teaching and other emerging duties at the University. These left less time for us to focus on Cytocast,” Mr Csikász-Nagy explains. Still, the award and the attention Cytocast got at HVL Reactor speaks for itself about the potential of its technology.

Cytocast is not the only start-up that has seen an opportunity for innovation in the current pandemic.

Cardiomatics, a Kraków-based company, has developed a way to automate the process of cardiological diagnosis by using AI-based cloud data collected from Holter ECG monitors.

Automating such routine tasks can be a boon for healthcare professionals in times of a pandemic that represents an unprecedented drain on human resources.

“Physicians more and more often decide to use our solution to be able to move human resources where they are most needed,” Rafał Samborski, Cardiomatics CEO tells Emerging Europe.

Seizing opportunity

Another start-up from the emerging Europe region that aims to help healthcare workers is Entremo, who won the Most Creative Pitch award — a category created just for them.

During a creative presentation styled as a news bulletin (of the pandemic kind we’re all well-acquainted with nowadays), Entremo’s Peter Lakatos promised to give nurses “superpowers”.

And how? By getting wearable vital sign sensors to sub intensive care wards, where in most places everything is still done by hand. Once patients have the device, nurses can check their vitals anytime without actually going near the patients which in times of a pandemic lowers the very real risk of healthcare workers becoming infected.

“The idea for the device came directly from talking with healthcare workers on the front line, so it definitely can help the fight against the virus,” says Mr Lakatos.

Right now, the biggest challenge for Entremo is completing its first prototype. The young start-up is working with the EIT Digital Innovation Activity Framework, and the prototype is expected in the next six months.

“So the biggest challenge is definitely the tight time schedule we’re dealing with, but we have a very capable growing team to achieve all our goals,” Mr Lakatos says optimistically.

As the HVL Reactor event clearly showed, start-ups from the emerging Europe region are adapting very fast to Covid-19. Indeed, they are not merely adapting, but also seizing opportunities that can eventually help in the fight against the pandemic, and protect against future outbreaks.

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