Regional collaboration is key to the development of digital health solutions 

Europe’s emerging regions need to look to each other to ensure that their innovative health start-ups get all the support they need. 

One of the few certainties to have emerged from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is the simple fact that the most serious health crisis in a generation cannot be overcome without innovation and collaboration of governments, pan-global organisations, scientists, businesses, start-ups, scale-ups, civil society and individuals. 

According to Mónika Tóth, programme manager of EIT Health’s Regional Innovation Scheme (RIS), local stakeholders in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe are learning how to build regional communities.

She says that this is a sign that the mentality in the region is changing, that there is an openness to share best practice and lessons learned. Morning Health Talks, she suggests, are a good example of how to build the community and bring together like-minded thought leaders to discuss issues of special importance.

In addition to community building, the EIT Health RIS programme brings together experts, thought leaders and mentors from Europe’s more developed regions who would not be accessible without EIT Health. 

“We have witnessed innovators, healthcare professionals, policymakers and investors sharing their know-how, inspiration, and practical advice,” says Tóth. “Collective thinking paves the way for positive changes. The Morning Health Talks series that has been organised in 12 regions this year has helped local actors formulate and advise on digital healthcare strategies. This can lead to the creation of added value and spur impactful action.”

But as Tóth underlines, there is still a lot that needs to be done. 

Innovation finds a way

Bartosz Wawrzynów, innovation broker and investment manager at FNP Ventures, a Warsaw-based organisation which supports innovative projects conducted by young researchers, says that co-operation needs to be led by stakeholders and key players. 

“In well-developed regions national and local governments play an important role in developing the innovation ecosystem by establishing funds and other supporting organisations and mechanisms to boost collaboration among actors and enable and facilitate the development of innovative solutions and ventures,” he says.

He adds that during the Covid-19 lockdowns, when borders almost became obsolete as few people were able to travel, “collaboration improved as the use of digital tools became more prevalent”. 

Jaanus Pikani, chairman at the life and health science meta-cluster ScanBalt, and a board member of the Tartu Biotechnology Park in Estonia, points to digital prescriptions – used on both sides of the Gulf of Finland as a successful example of cross-border collaboration. 

“Estonian patients can use their digital prescription and get medicine in Finland, and Finns can do likewise in Estonia,” he says. 

He suggests, however, that one of the problems that hampers more cross-border collaboration is that governments are sometimes simply not interested in developing a project with other countries. 

“That’s why I think that EU initiatives, such as the European Common Health Data Space, are welcome,” he says. To foster cross-border cooperation, the primary and secondary use of health data is very important in the development of health care services, but more importantly, the development of different products, and of course, research. There is cooperation, but it tends to be between independent organisations, I don’t think there’s too much going on between governments.” 

Jasna Karačić is a patient ombudsman and health diplomacy expert from Croatia. She says that countries need to share more, to follow-up on good examples, on good practice from others.  

“But that is missing,” she says.

‘We should view each other as a market’

Nina Sesto, director of digital health at the Magdalena Clinic for Cardiovascular Medicine in Croatia agrees that there needs to be more collaboration within the region. 

“What is symptomatic of our region is that we are a bunch of small countries, and we all look to Western Europe, instead of looking amongst ourselves. We should view each other as a market.” 

Razvan Mircea Chereches, chair at the department of public health at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania, shares this view that too often, first thoughts about collaboration are to the West, and not the immediate neighbourhood. 

“I believe that emerging Europe has a lot to bring to the table because of the fact that there are so many needs, which are still very visible, the region is more like a sandbox. But we need to create networks here and find solutions locally,” says Chereches.

Piotr Dardziński is the president of the Łukasiewicz Research Centre in Warsaw, established in 2019 to provide businesses seeking to innovate with easy and rapid access to scientists’ unparalleled competencies and the technological support of research institutes and give the scientists and engineers engaged in unique research work the ability to source business partners quickly.

“We are an important part of the Polish innovation ecosystem, that supports the creativity and transfer of knowledge into business practice,” he says. “This approach is embodied by the rising number of tools available to Polish businesses seeking to innovate. The interest in Łukasiewicz’s offering has so far exceeded our expectations. Suffice to say that the number of challenges submitted by businesses within the Łukasiewicz Challenges – our unique system of initiating research and development work — in the first quarter of 2021 was equal to those submitted in the whole of 2020. In total, we published 619 challenges given by 449 companies.

“We have been observing the growing interest among Polish entrepreneurs in reaching for tools that facilitate investing in innovations, thus allowing them to grow, build competitive advantages, and become resistant to unexpected crises, like the one we are dealing with now due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also reflected in steadily increasing R&D expenditures in the business enterprise.”

According to Statistics Poland, in 2020 expenditures on R&D in the sector reached 20.4 billion złoty (4.4 billion euros), seven per cent higher than in the previous year.

“In Łukasiewicz we see these changes as an opportunity to make Polish science a leader of socioeconomic changes,” adds Dardziński.

“Our experience, such as that we gained by building international research teams while managing the Virtual Research Institute — an innovative nationwide formula for researching the area of medical biotechnology – oncology, allows us to think boldly about input we can bring to the European R&D table.

“To facilitate these plans, we have established the Centre for Foresight and Internationalisation. It will help us build multinational research consortia, supported by innovative companies, highly qualified scientists from all over the world, and respond to changes we are, and we will be facing as a society in the field of health, digital transformation, clean energy and, sustainable economy in the years to come.”

That such a broad range of experts in the health sector agree about the need for collaboration clearly demonstrates the critical role that organisations and initiatives such as EIT Health have to play. The emerging regions of Europe have been improving their innovation capacity for the last years.

According to Monika Tóth, this part of Europe has many assets to become a fast track for digital health solutions. And the quality of local networks might be the key.

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