Opportunities in Asia to leapfrog legacy healthcare systems, but no shortcuts for entrepreneurs

ASIA is increasingly becoming the centre of healthcare transformation due to its ability to leapfrog legacy systems. That said, medtech entrepreneurs should not cut corners but be prepared to be in for the long haul, speakers at the Echelon Asia Summit 2019 said on Friday.

Antonio Estrella, managing director of healthtech investment and advisory firm Taliossa, said the region is gaining a lot of attention from multinational corporations, investors and entrepreneurs for being able to transform health care within a shorter time frame.

While the average time it takes for a medical innovation to achieve mass adoption is 17 years, “Asia is poised to change that curve pretty drastically for a number of reasons”, he said.

“Number one is the nature of how mobile-centric our entire lives are here, and the fact that we live in developing regions. Health care can leapfrog the legacy systems and legacy structures that in the West might slow things down, because you have to deal with hospital systems that have been in place for years. But in Asia, those are brand new or don't exist, and there's now a race to fill that gap.”

Astrid Irwanto, co-founder of genetics-testing startup Nalagenetics, said countries like the US and Iceland are more advanced in their national precision medicine programmes that make use of population genetics.

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“The technologies are already at their fingertips. The government is trying to enable people to actually hold in their hands their genetic information that will change how you receive health care. And here in Asia, I find that a little lacking,” said Ms Irwanto, who is also an innovation fellow at the Genome Institute of Singapore.

She added that the use of genetics in disease diagnosis and prevention is rising, and localisation in Asia is important but lacking. “So we better play early and understand ourselves early, and not lag 10 years behind what the Western world can provide for health care for every individual," she said.

Though entrepreneurs are rushing to capture the opportunities in the Asian market, they must refrain from being too hasty in pushing out their products, said Carl Nicholas Ng, co-founder and chief operating officer of software-as-a-service startup Lifetrack Medical Systems. After all, the health and lives of people must take the utmost priority.

Mr Ng was a consultant with Bain & Company and worked on business development and partnerships at Silicon Valley startup Peek. He shared that he used to get on the phone and close deals with customers within one to two days, and thought that in health care, he could do the same in a month or two.

“But some of these conversations that I've had have taken two years of follow-ups and demonstrations, down to pilot studies, proof-of-concept, and getting clinical stakeholders involved,” he said.

The rate of adoption in health care will always be much slower than most other industries, especially when compared to business-to-consumer startups. Medicine is inherently conservative, said Mr Ng, and startups are at risk of harming people if they do not have a full-fledged product that works as expected.

“So ideas around a minimum viable product or fake-it-till-you-make-it might land you in jail, like the Theranos lady,” said Mr Ng, referring to Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of a fraudulent blood-testing startup who is on criminal trial in the US.

“There are no shortcuts in health care. It's really about building trust with your stakeholders and being in it for the long haul.”

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