Matthieu De Beule & Bart Collet
Co-founder of FEops & co-founder of Healthstartup.eu
The Belgian healthcare ecosystem with its multiple stakeholders is more complex than any other industry. It’s therefore no surprise that in the integration of cure and care, innovative ideas are getting stuck. Changing this situation will result in a better use of precious resources, a healthier future for citizens, and give Belgian healthcare innovations a real chance on the world stage.
Matthieu De Beule and Bart Collet are closely involved in pioneering healthcare activities in Belgium. Both believe that innovation is the best solution for healthcare reform. “Our current system has become more about sick-care than healthcare. Organizations are not incentivized to keep patients healthy or to act preventively. Nevertheless, the pressure to change is coming from all sides; the challenge our healthcare system faces necessitates and even nurtures innovation but results in the opposite: more protection and less innovation. It’s simple physics: the more pressure on something, the more comes out or it bursts.”
Matthieu is co-founder of FEops, a spin-off from the University of Ghent providing engineering consultancy services in the field of Finite Element Analysis (FEA) with a strong focus on medical implants. “We operate in the niche sector of minimally invasive cardiovascular implants, e.g. stents used to reopen narrow blood vessels. In the past, these tiny implants were designed in a process of trial and error, which is both time-intensive and expensive. FEops has revolutionized this process using simulation technologies based on those used in the aviation and space industries. Today, we can conduct simulations without developing a prototype, and compare the design to existing stents to evaluate performance and optimize the design. Besides a major reduction in time (days instead of months), our technique also dramatically reduces costs. The results even make it easier to secure venture capital. You can compare our technology with the automotive industry: every time a new car is designed, it has to pass various crash tests. In the past, any small adaptation meant a new car had to be manufactured and literally crashed into a wall. Nowadays, design modifications are simulated before manufacture.”
Supported by the IWT (Flemish Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology) FEops is currently developing new technology to bring these simulations into the clinical practice. FEops is convinced that combining the simulations with imaging of the patient will give the doctor novel insights helpful in selecting the right treatment and device for the right patient.
For the moment, the most successful healthcare innovation in Belgium remains niche, as the FEops example illustrates. This is not necessarily because of regulations, but rather the established order of entities involved: insurers, regulators, patients and their pressure groups, hospitals, nurses, doctors… Each of these presents a hurdle that slows innovation down because it endangers the individual position of each entity. In the healthcare ecosystem, there are always adversaries. It is also often the case that innovations are introduced too fast, obliging entities not to adopt them.
Creating a more hospitable environment where all healthcare stakeholders can connect and discuss innovative ideas would create a new dynamic. Ideas that don’t stand a chance would be quickly identified and those that do, would find financial support and stakeholder buy-in.
As one of the three entrepreneurs behind the Health Startup Europe initiative, Bart is making this happen. “Our concept is based on ‘We Startup’, a social network of over 1,000 entrepreneurs, co-founders, mentors and investors. Health Startup Europe tracks emerging trends in health-tech and builds an international network of healthcare experts and decision makers. But our main activity is bringing together the entire healthcare ecosystem – healthcare professionals, policy makers, investors, care providers, patients and entrepreneurs, at events where we focus on one healthcare topic. Entrepreneurs come to present their ideas and receive feedback: What do buyers think? Is the idea appealing to investors? How do patients feel about it? The idea behind Health Startup Europe goes beyond ‘is it a good idea?’ Crucially we confront entrepreneurs with reality: does their idea really answer a need and is there a return? Sometimes the message is clear: the idea doesn’t stand a chance. This is good, because it’s better to fail under these circumstances than to waste precious resources over a long period. Other ideas are validated and even implemented. For example, at one of our events, the manager of three care homes was impressed by a sensor technology developed by one entrepreneur. He said ‘If you can deliver this for €100 per room and connect it to the existing monitoring system, I’m in!’ The startup’s investor was also present and decided to provide additional funding to make it happen.”
Prevention & greater specialization
Healthcare has gradually evolved into a system evaluated on performance and making money out of illness. Organizations trying to buck this trend currently fight a losing battle in Belgium. In the US, healthcare provider and insurer Kaiser Permanente is a good example of how the opposite can be true. Their underlying philosophy is radically different: they actively invest in keeping people healthy for as long as possible. The incentive is lower insurance costs.
In his book ‘The Innovator’s Prescription’, Clayton M. Christensen sums up the healthcare versus ‘sick-care’ debate as the process by which hospitals automatically generate excessive overheads, thus making healthcare expensive. He argues that specialization would be a more efficient use of our resources: a specific heart hospital, lung hospital, and so on. In India, doctors perform heart surgery at the same high level as more developed countries, but at a lower cost and with a guarantee. If surgery is unsuccessful, patients can return at the hospital’s expense.
Choosing means not losing
In Belgium, we have a magnificent biotope of various population groups and languages, which is a perfect breeding ground for innovation. However, resources to support innovation and entrepreneurship in Belgium are too thinly spread across too many initiatives. This reduces their impact. In addition, government programs funding innovation, like their development aid counterparts, often forget to look at the business case of projects. The EU’s 7,8 million euro Hector robot is a good example. While initiatives in this area are to be applauded, under this model, rather than become self-supporting, innovators tend to limit themselves to waiting for the next funding round. Our dispersed innovation landscape creates overhead costs that could be better spent elsewhere, for example, on startups themselves.
Likewise, it makes no economic sense to only realize Belgian innovations within the borders of our (small) country. Inherent to the business side of digital innovation is its potential ‘to scale’. They should be commercialized abroad. But we miss this drive: we tend to compete internally, resulting in mediocre offerings when it comes to internationalization.
There are exceptions such as FEops and Biocartis (molecular diagnostics). Both are doing very well at commercializing high-tech applications for global markets. But with other digital and innovative healthcare products, foreign companies are taking the lead (blood pressure measurement devices, software for medical practices, etc.). Trying to compete with them is illogical and unsustainable in Belgium given our lack of critical mass. It makes more sense to focus our scarce resources on high-tech products and services with potential international impact rather than an abundance of mediocre ideas.
All startups should dare to take risks. It is also important that they dare to say ‘no’. But above all, they should establish a sounding board. “We launched FEops with three people, so we had a kind of natural sounding board. But we all had the same background, we went to the same university and we developed the same technology. It is imperative to explain your story to outsiders, all the stakeholders in your ecosystem and get feedback as soon as possible. This will save you a lot of trouble later on,” says Matthieu.
Bart agrees: “What makes the difference between a successful startup and a failure? At Health Startup Europe we see so many initiatives originating from brilliant, engaged entrepreneurs. But their presentations are often too technical and miss the point. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: they may be convinced of the technology or product they are developing, but if it doesn’t solve anybody’s problem, it will fail. Focus on the problem you’re trying to solve and start from there.”
Sound advice for building a 21st century healthcare system in Belgium that really works for all stakeholders.
Dr. Ir. Matthieu De Beule graduated as a Master of Science in Civil Engineering and obtained his PhD degree in Biomedical Engineering, entitled Finite Element Stent Design. He is assistant professor at IBiTech-bioMMeda, Ghent University and co-founder of FEops (Optimal Solutions in Finite Element Analysis), a spin-off from the same university, providing engineering consultancy services in the field of Finite Element Analysis (FEA) with a strong focus on endovascular devices.
Bart Collet is owner and manager of a care home for the elderly. He is co-founder of HealthStartup Europe, an initiative that organizes events in Europe to bring together entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals, policy makers, investors and patients to support healthcare innovation. Bart is also the initiator of Zorgbeheer.com, an Internet platform for ‘captains of care’, launched in 2006. Self-taught, Bart has developed deep knowledge of database design, programming, web servers, network infrastructure, software development, social media and collaboration applications. Since 2005, Bart has been evaluating wireless monitoring and communication solutions in healthcare and is internationally recognized as an m-Health evangelist.
This article is part of the “Roadbook of Innovation: 28 conversations for the future” is brought to you by Accenture, iMinds and HR Productions. For more info visit http://www.accenturebelux.