Making health an export product
What would happen if encounters between doctors, engineers, researchers and startups were more frequent than now? New health technology and export products would be created, the people behind the Health Capital Helsinki project believe.
A breast cancer patient is cured, but great concern about recurrence remains. The clinic will only counsel her during office hours and their phone number is constantly busy only the lucky few get through. Soon, this may no longer be the case.
This year, hundreds of breast cancer patients in Helsinki have had access to a new kind of help, a service called Noona, which enables them to notify the hospital about symptoms through a mobile device or PC. The system has the capacity to learn, asking specifying questions to help put cases, which appear more serious, to the top of the nurse's agenda.
This trial will provide data on the digital monitoring of symptoms, but Noona is interesting also in other respects, as it is an example of genuine cooperation between a hospital and a business startup.
Former Aalto students are partners in the firm, which developed the service. It contacted the Helsinki University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Centre to ask what they were most in need of. The solution was developed in close communication with experts in everyday care work. Stories like this could be much more abundant, but problems and solutions rarely seem to meet. A consortium project called Health Capital Helsinki is trying to change this.
Promoting encounters between experts
What if the Helsinki region was a major hub where IT and mobile startups, investors as well as university experts in technology and business could effectively network with medical and life science researchers and doctors engaged in patient work?
The Meilahti–Otaniemi–Viikki area could form a trinity of health technology research and development that would lean on three key campuses and serve as a catalyst for recurring innovation, which yields new products for export.
A vision like this gave birth to the Health Capital Helsinki consortium that is being steered by Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa HUS and the City of Helsinki.
The fancy term used for such a concentration is an innovation ecosystem. This refers to an agile and open network instead of a turgid organisation created through a top-down approach.
At Aalto University, the Health Factory creates and applies research data to solving problems in the health sector and supports the birth of new businesses. The main emphasis is on devices and IT for healthcare. The director of the Health Factory, Markus Mäkelä, says that thanks to good interpersonal relationships, cooperation between different parties takes place already now, but this is not enough by itself. More systematic cooperation is needed.
“It can be hard for potential cooperation partners to discover one another in large, thousands-strong organisations. Aalto researchers should have a living interface with physicians as well as medical and life science researchers,” Mäkelä says.
Mäkelä is one of the people in charge of the Health Capital Helsinki consortium, as is HUS Chief Development Officer Visa Honkanen.
“Innovations in the health sector do occur in Finland, but they are too often detached from the problems of everyday life,” Honkanen says.
Technology startups will typically offer HUS finished solutions. But if the product was created without knowledge of the needs of patients and care staff, there's a real risk of failure.
For his part, Dean Risto Renkonen from the University of Helsinki wants to see greater commercial acumen in support of medicine.
“Scientifically, our faculty of medicine is in the European top ten, but far behind in commercial product development. We've got potential and energy, but don't know how to transform this into business activity,” Renkonen says.
The wellbeing megatrend
It is no coincidence that the Helsinki region wants to be at the forefront of health technology The consideration of wellbeing and its measurement has, especially in the West, spread to every part of life from work to leisure time, exercise, dining and sleeping.
At one end of the spectrum is the individual with a keen interest in personal health who wants to monitor and control his or her habits. At the other is state-of-the-art medical treatment with its expensive devices.
The digitisation of wellbeing and healthcare extends everywhere from the consumer market to intensive hospital care: from heart rate monitors costing a few dozen euros to clinical devices with price tags stretching into the hundreds of thousands.
Aalto University's Markus Mäkelä says the Helsinki region has what it takes to become Northern Europe's leading innovation and business environment in this field.
Visa Honkanen of HUS believes that the most important future Finnish healthcare innovations will come in the form of technology and its applications instead of pharmaceutical molecules.
“The game will be decided within two years. Those who are unable to participate in digitisation will inevitably fall behind in development, which means that we have to act now,” Honkanen stresses.
New health technology will change the way in which patients are served. Honkanen says the search is on for solutions that enable the patient to be treated even without requiring hospital attendance. In the future, patients will no longer be passed through a process of visiting care facilities, as help will be brought to the patient instead.
“At present, patients are still first directed to see a nurse, then a general practitioner and then a specialist. Every patient is channelled through the same process and, at its worst, this can result in three or four unnecessary visits,” Honkanen points out.
The Noona mobile service for breast cancer patients is a fine example of a learning system, which collects data and becomes smarter over time. Honkanen reckons that in health technology, the key products of the future will come in the shape of learning systems. They can provide patients with an immediate answer or steer them directly to the best source of help.
The importance of physical space
Campus library Terkko sits between the hospital and the Biomedicum building in the Meilahti hospital area. Visa Honkanen thinks the library building could also attract people to come there for meetings.
One of the planned measures included in the work of the Health Capital Helsinki consortium is the creation of a meeting place, an innovation space that could very well be realised within the Meilahti campus library building.
The idea would be to attract startups, university researchers and students as well as physicians to rendezvous under the same roof, both by chance and on purpose.
A festival held last spring at Biomedicum was a good start. HealthSPA, an active constituent of the Aalto University ecosystem, gathered more than seven hundred academic experts in medicine and technology as well as investors and business startup representatives to the event.
“We want to inspire doers: Aalto itself and its Health Capital Helsinki partners are bringing these experts together too. We do that for example by arranging inspirational workshops and taking researchers on visits to observe clinical medical work,” Mäkelä says.
A major hospital is a big potential testing platform for new technology and these activities also provide opportunities for publishing joint scientific research.
Cooperation between the hospital and the universities already takes place, among other things in the field of neuroscience and neurotechnology at the BioMag laboratory.
“Even in the era of digitisation, good things emerge when people meet one another. The physical environment can ignite or extinguish inspiration,” Honkanen says.
Legal matters and attitude
Innovation ecosystems are a hot topic of conversation all over the world. One effective concentration in the healthcare sector has arisen around Karolinska Institutet and the central university hospital in Stockholm. Perhaps the best-known concentration of all is the one established around Boston's top universities Harvard and MIT.
“Boston has surpassed California's Silicon Valley because they understand the importance of physical connection. People bump into each other at cafés on a daily basis. This is the model for the future,” Honkanen says.
Sounds inspiring, but can people really be spurred to meet and innovate through any project?
“A bottom-up approach has not been effective enough, so now we'll try this. In a couple of years, we'll see if cooperation takes wings,” Risto Renkonen says.
A lot of questions need to be solved in open innovation: how to assign rights, who decides about commercial utilisation and how to divvy up the profits. Attitude comes into it as well.
“Not long ago, a very non-commercial attitude still prevailed at our university. Even now, some members of the faculty are unhappy with the idea of commercial research. All this has been much more natural for Aalto University,” says Renkonen.
The people in charge of the Health Capital Helsinki consortium say the intention is not to make value judgements between basic research and studies that can be utilised commercially – but perhaps researchers could be motivated to think about their work from new perspectives.
“Researchers need to be given freedom in their work, but when they have several options for where to proceed, it is useful to know which of them is most likely to bring tangible results,” Aalto University's Mäkelä notes.
An innovation zone to stimulate the economy
• The Health Capital Helsinki consortium pools the resources of Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa, various municipal actors and the Finnish Health Technology Association of the industry.
• The goal is to shape the Helsinki region into Northern Europe's leading concentration of expertise and new business activity in the life sciences and health technology.
• The aim of the consortium is to increase cooperation between experts of different fields, assist in the securing of research funding and to support the birth of fresh innovation and new export products.
• The consortium’s practical measures include a business service office, campus startup incubators, bringing experts together and facilitating negotiations on research cooperation with significant life science and health technology companies.
• Universities and research institutions are trying to align their research activities in a way that maximises synergy. Overlap is already relatively minor within the capital city region.
• The project markets the Helsinki region to international companies and research groups, wishing they'll bring research and product development activities to Finland.
Text: Terhi Hautamäki
Illustrations: Maija Savolainen