di , 23/09/2020

The evolution of startup development instruments on the example of the Nordic digital health ecosystem.

Mentorship is considered essential for the growth of startups in any field. However, we are used to think of mentorship as something ad lib and opposed to the structured program of an accelerator with its x number of batches per year. In addition, healthcare industry is very demanding and business cycles for startups are long due to the necessity to comply with healthcare policies and regulations. All this makes it not so easy for a digital health startup to benefit from occasional mentorship.

One of the alternatives to make mentorship really work could be the MIT mentoring model based on several principles:

  • Long-term mentorship on a regular basis
  • Group mentoring when 2-4 mentors with complementary backgrounds are working with one startup at the same time
  • Top-class mentors are working on a pro-bono basis.

Thus, the model is focusing on a structured and effective mentoring throughout a continuous period of time.

We decided to take a closer look at the effectiveness of the MIT model in practice. The Nordic digital health ecosystem is a very representative example for our investigation because of the global prominence of the Northern Europe’s healthcare and the existence of the Nordic Mentor Network for Entrepreneurship (NOME). NOME, a top-class mentorship initiative for life science startups, is built on MIT mentoring model.

We interviewed several players – a science park, a startup and an accelerator – in order to find out about the strong mentorship institute and learning more about the ecosystem itself along the way. All heroes of the interview are taking part in the NOME.

Facts Check. The mentorship network rocking the whole Nordics: NOME

The outstanding healthcare player from the oldest Finnish city

Turku Business Region is one of the most important Finnish ecosystem players and internationally recognized cluster leaders in healthcare. HealthTurku has been on the map for more than 30 years and has been home for many spin offs coming out of such actors as Orion Pharma, Bayer or the University of Turku. Currently there are over 100 actors in the region active in the healthcare segment.

Hanna Halme, Growth Advisor, Life Science from Turku Business Region comments on the HealthTurku focus.

“The strong areas of HealthTurku have usually been drug development, diagnostics and medical devices areas. Lately there has been also a rise in the digital health solution development. For example, one of the startups growing very fast is a Turku-based Adesante (Surgery Vision) company providing VR solutions that help surgeons to make more precise planning of surgical procedures. Another bright company which is based in Oulu but was taking part in our acceleration program in Turku is Cerenion. The startup uses AI to provide a new and non-invasive way to measure brain function of intensive care patients”.

“We prefer ‘Growth Program’ to ‘Accelerator’”

Turku Business Region is the main coordinator of NOME in Finland and also initiator of ProHealth Growth program for healthcare and life sciences startups in Finland.

“NOME is a good idea because its group mentoring. Imagine a startup that listens to many different opinions of mentors along the way. Under NOME activities, there are usually 2-3 mentors dealing with the same startup and coaching it, thus making it easier to develop a consensus. NOME is also a good way for all our Nordic players to get to know each other even better than before.

On a national level, we run ProHealth Growth Program (former ProHealth Accelerator) – and we prefer to call it a growth program rather than accelerator because it very customized. Also, we are accepting startups’ applications at any time: we think that companies need to get the help in the right moment not waiting for the next batch to start. Furthermore, each startup gets assigned with a coach helping the team to move throughout the program which consists of regular workshops combined with mentorship sessions.

Since ProHealth Growth Program is very tailored-made, we don’t have a fixed duration period, it could be several months or one year, etc. Usually we have from 10 to 15 startups enrolled throughout the year”.

AI fueling healthcare

Turku- and Helsinki-based startup Etsimo Healthcare is developing a platform for delivering data-driven digital health solutions. Etsimo is a part of NOME startup portfolio and has been going through the mentorship program for a bit more than a year. Thomas Grandell, the startup’s CEO, comments on their product.

“Etsimo algorithms use all available health data to assess a patient’s current health situation, it’s urgency and the required care, and put the patient on the optimal care path. This path has 4 basic elements: self-care with care instructions, remote analysis of your case/data by a professional, remote care involving interaction with a professional over video or chat and face to face appointment. Leveraging the data, it’s also possible to predict patient’s future health risks and suggest changes in his or her behavior and lifestyle to reduce these risks.”

The company’s customers are healthcare providers, health insurance companies and national health systems like Terveystalo, the largest private healthcare service company in Finland. Apart from serving the home market in Finland, the startup successfully operates in Brazil which is a 200+ M people market. Together with its local partner Techtools, Etsimo is targeting 76+ M people collaborating with a main hospital chain and state health providers”.

Getting Mentorship to Move in Digital Health

“Etsimo is one of the NOME portfolio startups. In the beginning of the program we were assigned 3 very good mentors with different backgrounds. One of them is from Finland and has a deep experience in pharma industry, also on the international level. Then we have a Danish mentor with great entrepreneurial baggage in healthcare and another Finnish mentor from the Europen Investment Bank, who has a very good view on the EU policies and investment strategy in the field.

We have mentoring sessions about once every two months and I could say the NOME program has been very valuable for us. It is not a simple reporting about Etsimo’s progress with loose discussions afterwards, but a about really complex and in-depth discussion and analysis around the challenges we are facing and how we can move forward. I think NOME is organized just the way a mentorship program should be”.

The Rise of the Nordic Digital Health Ecosystem

On a side note, Thomas also shares some insights on the potential of the Nordics ecosystem.

“There are great skills available in the Nordics both from digital and clinical sides. In Finland, with our central health repository Kanta, we have an amount of collected healthcare data that is unmatched globally, comparable probably only to Israel. If we as a society could get access to this data more quickly and more easily, of course without jeopardizing privacy, we could utilize it to create extremely competitive digital health solutions for the global markets. Unfortunately, this advantage is decreasing with time because if we wait another 3-5 years, we will face solutions from the likes of Amazon or Apple, who have already started to go big on healthcare and have begun collecting and combining comparable data.

Another factor that became significant for the ecosystem is, of course, the Covid pandemic. I would say that from business perspective the pandemic transformed the curiosity towards digital health solutions into real interest and real intent to buy. With converging technologies like AI, wearables and IoT devices transforming healthcare, it seems like we are already at the stage we expected to be in 2-5 years from now”.

Accelerator with a tailored program in digital health

Accelerace, one of the biggest accelerators in the Nordics, is not only running the NOME initiative but also following the trend of tailored and customized program for their portfolio startups for 12 years already.

Accelerace is based in Copenhagen and tends to around 75 % Danish startups in its portfolio but also open to international companies. The program is free for startups and the business model of Accelerace is based on government funding and corporate sponsorship and also has its own fund investing from 50 to 400 k euros in the brightest startups from the programs.

Christian Waarst, Business Accelerator & Investment Manager at Accelerace, gives an overview on Accelerace’s practices in digital health.

“Usually, Accelerace runs the programs for up to 5 months depending on the needs and the development of the startups. Our program is divided into two parts the first of which is a general pre-acceleration program applicable for startups from all the verticals. It allows the startups to obtain product-market-fit, learn how to enhance the value of their product and get a better understanding of investors. This first part gives the startups a sense of what Accelerace can provide while helping them apply for the core acceleration program and from now on we are running it online.
The second part of the program is the core acceleration with both online and offline camps and individual acceleration mentoring sessions. Accelerace’s team dedicates a consultant responsible for each specific industry, in case of healthcare it’s me because I have background in medtech and biotech together with Peter Birk, Partner at Accelerace. Hence, this second part is very much tailored to each startup.”

Summing up our article heroes’ comments, we could definitely spot the trend of transformation of a classic accelerator model into long-term and focused mentorship program created for needs of each startup. Having proved its effectiveness in such challenging industry as digital health, we hope this transformed model will facilitate the development of more startup verticals, also geographically.

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