|An interview with Gerry Chillé
General Partner, Healthware Labs
Healthware Labs’ Gerry Chillè talked to pharmaphorum about European digital health startups, the challenges they face and how pharma can best collaborate with them. The European digital health startup environment has changed immeasurably over the last five years, as new and exciting companies look for solutions to traditional healthcare problems through the lens of technology. The region’s proliferation of small, independent companies is perhaps best exemplified by Vienna’s mySugr.
The diabetes startup was acquired by Roche in 2017 and remains something of a poster child for the scene. But, as Healthware Labs’ general partner Gerry Chillè explains, although Europe’s digital health landscape is still evolving, it’s far wider and more varied than any one startup.
“There’s a very fluid and dynamic set of activities going on that covers many different areas,” he says, picking out companies working to solve problems with fertility and hearing, as well as diabetes, as just some of the startups to have caught his eye recently.
“One company we are quite familiar with is Kronos DNA, which is a group of women researchers dealing with DNA sequencing and analysis to develop specific tests to help fertility doctors find the correct treatment for some of the women they’re working with.
“Another is TinniTracks, which deals with tinnitus. They have a digital-only solution that can help people to ‘retrain’ their brain around the frequencies that produce the debilitating ringing in their ears.”
In diabetes Gerry points to a small company called MedAngel, whose founder was dealing with his own diabetes. “He had a very specific problem where, although he was taking the medication the way he should, he was still getting really sick even after using insulin. At the end of the day he realised that the problem was his fridge.”
That drove him to create what is essentially a Bluetooth thermometer that goes in the fridge and sends an alert if the temperature is not at the correct level. Given that it’s common for doctors’ offices to use ordinary home fridges to stores medicines, keeping those fridges at the correct temperature is similarly a big issue. “So, here’s a startup with a very focused solution that found quite a big need in the market, and it is even selling its product through Amazon in the US.”
The same sort of variety can be seen with Europe’s centres for innovation. Berlin often leads when it comes to startup activities and the Nordic countries are also strong contenders – thanks to their strong traditions of nurturing small tech companies. Meanwhile, London is another big area for startups, thanks to the availability there of investment.
It’s an environment that Healthware itself is looking to add to. The Italian agency’s European headquarters is in Salerno’s Palazzo Innovazione (literally, the Innovation Palace), which is also home to Healthware’s own digital health lab, through which it works with local startups to introduce them to those of its larger clients that are looking for health solutions.
European digital health startup challenges
So, neither ideas nor supportive locations are in short supply for Europe’s digital health startups, but that’s not to say the sector does not have its challenges. Predominantly these are financial. Seed funding to begin operations is usually relatively easy to obtain, but when it comes time to ‘scale’, it’s much more difficult.
Slowly European investors are becoming more tuned-in to digital health offerings and growth potential, but the region does not yet have the same sort of dynamic, fluid flow of investment that can be seen stateside. “It’s just a very different investment scenario and that’s not going to change as quickly as might be desired. But the environment is certainly improving.”
What big pharma needs to know about digital health startups
Gerry and his team are often tasked with unearthing up-and-coming innovative health projects on behalf of large companies. As they investigate the digital health ecosystem, they bring a keen level of insight to how successful collaborations can best be achieved.
There’s also an obvious difference between pharma’s multiple cycles of approvals and the nimble approach startups begin with.
Gerry concludes: “Three years is a lifetime in this environment. If pharma companies can make sure they are working with regulatory, legal and all the other internal groups to lower, or eliminate, some of the barriers to enabling a proof-of-concept project to launch, that would be very beneficial both to pharma and to startups.”
The interview has been originally published on the special issue of CoFounder.