The last word: Collaborative innovation

Emerging Europe has proven time and again that by working together, its healthtech start-ups are a match for anyone. 

Two weeks ago I hosted the EIT Health InnoStars Awards Grand Final — the finale of a six-month acceleration programme for early-stage healthcare start-ups from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe.  

What was interesting about the winner — Shuttle Catheters, a Greek start-up, working on expanding the reach of minimally invasive surgery for CTO’s (Chronic Total Occlusions) by developing a mobile, balloon-anchoring technology — was that while it might originate from outside of emerging Europe, it works closely with innovators from the region. 

“We collaborate with Alexandre Romoscanu, who created the Swiss-Romanian Incite Medical in 2017, bringing in significant engineering and management experience in the electrophysiology and vascular percutaneous devices fields,” Danae Manolesou, the start-up’s CTO, told me after the Grand Final.  

Romanian innovation 

Just a few days later, re.flex, a digital assistant for musculoskeletal physical therapy facilitating effective long-lasting knee, hip, and lower back pain treatment, without the need of physiotherapists, again developed by Romanian start-up — Kineto Tech Rehab, became one of the first non-German digital medical devices (DMDs) to qualify for reimbursement under the statutory health insurance system in Germany. 

During the Grand Final, I did a fireside chat with Martin Rus, one of the founders and the CEO of Tully, another Romanian start-up working on a wearable device that acts as an early warning guidance system for children, calculating an overall level of stress and empowering them to manage their emotions. Tully won the InnoStars award in 2021. 

But Romania’s contribution in developing innovative health solutions is broader. Two years ago, during the Global Start-Up Summit European conference, the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca was appointed as a project leader in healthcare innovation and artificial intelligence within the European Innovation Area — a new European project created to encourage innovation, promoted by European Commissioner for Innovation Mariya Gabriel.  

“Cluj-Napoca now takes over the management of the Health iArea, in order to create new economic opportunities for Romania and Europe. Our goal is to accelerate innovative solutions for one of the most important components of our lives: our health,” Emil Boc, Cluj-Napoca’s mayor said at the time. 

The Kineto Tech Rehab team is based in Bucharest. Its last investment round, in 2020, estimated the company’s market value at 10 million euros. In 2022, the start-up was enrolled in the EIT Health Go Global track to evaluate a potential market approach for the United States.    

“We’re excited to observe how the start-ups grow and work their way up. The innovation potential in Romania, and in the whole Central and Eastern European region is still significant. Our job is to scout for the most promising solutions and support them during their journey so all European citizens can benefit from the novel medical and healthcare innovations,” Monika Toth, responsible for EIT Health Regional Innovation Scheme (RIS), tells me.   

Little innovation? 

The EIT Regional Innovation Scheme (EIT RIS) was introduced in 2014 to boost the innovation performance of countries with moderate or modest innovation scores as defined by the European Innovation Scoreboard.  

The RIS region covers EU member states Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, as well as Horizon Europe associated countries Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Türkiye and Ukraine. 

“Greece is indeed a laggard in innovation, especially in med-tech. The fact that a Greek med-tech start-up took up the challenge and gained recognition beyond its borders is very encouraging indeed,” Shuttle Catheters’ Manolesou tells me.  

“It is also telling of the recent boom in life sciences start-ups. This has been spurred by renewed focus from local industrial players, as well as an appetite for risk from scientists at academic institutions trying out tech transfer projects.”  

‘Collaborative innovation’ 

A couple of months ago I spoke with EIT Health’s Monika Toth at InnovEIT, another event I hosted in Warsaw in September. She told me that in the 21st century collaborative innovation is considered the key to the development of innovative solutions.  

“The complexity of our environment and the fast speed technology development demand a wide range of capabilities that are difficult to derive from a single provider. Collaboration of multiple stakeholders enable partners to integrate various resources and share knowledge to co-create and develop breakthrough solutions.” 

It is often easy to appear overly positive about the EIT InnoStars programme, but its “collaborative innovation” concept gets results.  

Accelerating the growth of 100 start-ups within six years (with almost 70 per cent of them already launched on the market) is an achievement. Being able to engage multiple stakeholders in a long-term mission requires a lot of effort — I have seen how difficult it is to encourage different parties to work together. There is enormous potential for regional collaboration within the emerging Europe region and InnoStars shows it is possible. 

“Our participation in the InnoStars programme has been beneficial in multiple ways,” adds Danae Manolesou.  

“First, it has contributed to our team-building by uniting everyone’s efforts towards an easily identifiable goal; second, it has catalysed our interaction with mentors whose important advice we may have otherwise overlooked due to urgent daily tasks; third, it has given us much needed financial and moral support at a critical point of our product development; fourth, it has instilled just enough discipline needed at a time when we might have ranked our priorities wrongly in terms of resource allocation and route to market; finally, it has given us access to clinical resources, which is one of the most obvious and essential elements for any health tech start-up.”  

Time for more  

I have heard so many times that this or that country within emerging Europe needs to create another Silicon Valley to make sure they are able to produce unicorns. I have also heard of experts eager to learn from and collaborate with experts from the West. 

Relatively little have I heard about learning from the experiences of emerging Europe countries or borrowing from their best practices, especially those that entered the European Union over the past two decades, like Romania, or are not even part of the EU yet, like the Western Balkan countries or Ukraine. And there is a lot to be shared and learned from. 

It is high time we changed that and built on the individual experiences of the emerging Europe countries to create more innovative solutions in health care and beyond. 

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