Webit 2019 Health Summit roundup

Webit stage

There isn’t any aspect of healthcare that isn’t being transformed by technology. The health-related technologies on display reflected the work that is being done to prevent illness, to deliver more effective treatments, and to reduce the growing cost of healthcare.

Speaking at Webit’s Health Summit, Dr Daniel Kraft, Chair for Medicine at Singularity University, rushed through hundreds of slides in his 20-minute full-frontal assault on the unsuspecting audience. His main argument focused on the imperative to move healthcare from intermittent and reactive to continuous.

The upshot is a longer, healthier life, and throughout the conference, the health-related technologies on display – whether on the Health Summit stage, the Startup stage, or across the exhibition floors – reflected the work that is being done to prevent illness, to deliver more effective treatments, and to reduce the growing cost of healthcare. There isn’t any aspect of healthcare that isn’t being touched – transformed, even – by technology.

The most eye-catching demonstration was surely that of Stefan Vilsmeier, CEO of Brainlab. The company’s rather pedestrian description does not do it justice: ‘To improve critical surgeries, radiosurgery treatments and operating room efficiency, Brainlab software and hardware devices create and enhance data’. What we saw on stage is the use of visualisation technologies to pinpoint, for example, the precise shape and location of a brain tumour in realtime in 3D, and thereby help a surgeon operate much more cleanly and effectively. Brainlab is also working with Magic Leap, the rather secretive augmented reality (AR) company, allowing a surgeon to see layers beneath the skin, effectively bringing these visualisation capabilities away off a screen directly into the surgeon’s field of vision.

Brainlab mixed reality

This is impressive stuff, but the need for such medical interventions is rare. More likely, you will experience some minor trauma, for example, turning over your ankle. It was such an injury that inspired Melinda Szegedi, now a 17-year old high school student from Hungary, to launch e-Fasli. With backing from Hiventures, a Hungarian incubator and venture capital outfit, the company has produced a prototype thermotherapeutical device designed to precisely deliver the correct temperature, duration and frequency of thermotherapy for a particular trauma. According to the company, over 100 million patients require such treatment for a wide range of conditions.

Many people, however, do not seek treatment, fearing that time away from work will reflect badly on them; while those that do turn to the healthcare service find that they lose considerable time in travelling to, and waiting for, appointments. The costs of both presenteeism and absenteeism are significant to the economy: GPDQ, a UK company led by Paul Roberts, is attempting to solve the problem. GPDQ works with employers to offer health checks, on-site clinics, referrals to secondary care, etc. The company is now raising a Series A round of financing.

The cost of healthcare is now a driver of innovation, and frequently given as an argument for attracting investment: if technology can both improve healthcare delivery and reduce costs, then it can reasonably be expected that healthcare services will purchase the innovations. It is therefore in the interests of investors to finance companies that are uncovering the opportunities for such improvements. Novartis, like other major corporates, is on to this, and the Novartis Biome is an innovation lab that supports promising health tech startups from diagnostics to nanorobotic drug delivery.

Dr Vishal Nangalia, founder of ELU AI, another British startup, is using machine learning to better predict patients that are deteriorating and in need of urgent intervention. Without using any new data sources, ELU AI is able to capture six times more patients likely to die than existing algorithms. While this is itself desirable, there are massive associated cost savings. Dr Nangalia is now seeking £2 million of financing.

While machine learning, and artificial intelligence more broadly, has the potential to underpin health tech, the issue of dataset bias is rapidly coming to the fore. The problem was illustrated by Anu Acharya, whose company Mapmygenome is tackling the scarcity of Indian DNA in genomic datasets despite 20% of the world’s population being Indian. The benefits extend to pharmacogenomics, and especially disease risk profiling, enabling specific changes to lifestyle and diet to prevent diseases associated with particular genetic profiles.

On the preventative side, we also heard from Stefano Cucca of Radoff. According to the World Health Organisation, in Europe 21,000 deaths per year are from lung cancer resulting from exposure to radon. Most people are unaware of the danger, and in reality the numbers are small compared with, say, 1.65 million deaths globally from excess sodium consumption. Yet it demonstrates that every facet of health and healthcare is receiving the attention of technology innovators, whether established companies like Brainlab or upstarts like Radoff.