A Healthy Dose of Innovation

James De Vile
James De Vile

GITEX 2016 showcases the start-ups driving medical technology in the Middle East 

As startup culture has grown, the GITEX (Gulf International Technology Exhibition) technology show has developed into a vibrant hub of innovation over recent years - and a vital platform for showcasing ideas.

The largest annual technology exhibition in the MENA region is now home to the GITEX Startup Movement, a global ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors and mentors.

The 2016 show at Dubai World Trade Centre saw early-stage hopefuls in the dedicated Startup Central hall, with those further down the route to market invited to showcase their projects on the show floor, alongside industry stalwarts.

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2016 show at Dubai World Trade Centre hosted many futuristic projects in the dedicated Startup Central hall

Hector and Carlos Costa were awarded space in UAE telecoms provider Etisalat’s spectacular pavilion - alongside robot baristas and electric supercars - to demonstrat new innovations from their startup, OTTAA Project, a communication platform that uses images and environmental data to enable speech-impaired people to construct and communicate a sentence in the fastest way possible.

The brothers arrived in Dubai in January with only a basic prototype and have since built over 1000 active users in rehabilitation centres in the Emirates and back home in Argentina. This was only possible, they say, thanks to Dubai 100; an intensive programme designed to accelerate the growth of early-stage digital health startups.

“Dubai 100 was a life-changing experience” explains Carlos. “We were facing a lot of issues in getting support in Argentina. We had six users, and feedback was slow. Dubai 100 provided the perfect opportunity; as a health-dedicated programme it has built an incredible network in the GCC and also the United States with people with extensive experience in healthcare. We’ve had almost unlimited access to anyone in the world we want to contact in order to evolve our project.”

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Hector and Carlos Costa, creators of the OTTAA communication project

While the current version of OTTAA Project is controlled through a touchscreen, the iteration at GITEX is a significant step forward for the company. “During the first days of Dubai 100 we spent time at a hospital” says Hector. “We experienced something we hadn’t considered - a completely paralysed person who was fully conscious and aware of what was happening around him, yet unable to use our project. This really opened our eyes and led us to look at how we can bridge the gap between our technology and someone without motor function.”

The brothers initially considered monitoring eye movement, but soon discovered that this led to fatigue and discomfort. Eventually, they settled on a solution that only a few years ago would have been considered science fiction; combining the same image-based software with an EEG brainwave-sensing headset and enabling a user to form sentences using only their thoughts.

Hector and Carlos aren’t the only ones harnessing the power of the mind in pursuit of improved quality of life. Navigating the show’s bustling lanes is a young man in an electric wheelchair. His body, however, remains motionless; the only thing connecting him to the chair is a spider-like headset.

“It takes a little training,” explains Nour Fakhr of his invention, which began as a university graduation project. “We show the user a box and ask them to try to push or pull it with their mind. The brain patterns are recorded, and the chair learns to move based upon those signals.”

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Basma Saeed, founder of Emergency Response Network (ERN)

From the number of healthcare-related exhibitors in GITEX’s Startup Central zone, it is clear that healthcare is an enormously fertile area for new innovation. But not all are focused on the technological transformation of medicine; others seek to streamline the vital customer journey.

“Healthcare is entrenched in legacy systems” explains Basma Saeed, founder of Emergency Response Network (ERN), an app that targets the potentially dangerous wait times for insurance approval experienced by paramedics. “A lot of the innovation occurring now is about updating and revitalising these processes.”

ERN aggregates information from paramedic services, hospitals, insurers and a patient’s own medical records in order to provide rapid insurance approval while simultaneously enabling the receiving hospital to pre-empt resources and plan emergency treatment.

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This electric wheelchair is entirely powered by the user's mind, via a headset

Basma’s pitch uses a simple analogy: “In 2016, you can order a pizza and your smartphone will accurately display the minutes and seconds to its arrival. But when it comes to an emergency dispatcher waiting for a simple go-ahead, there’s no such countdown. It can take a dangerously long time; I’ve spoken to people for which that wait saw them go from stable to critical. In two or three cases, it’s been fatal.”

ERN is still at “seed level”, and Basma is at GITEX to build partnerships. “This show brings so many stakeholders together under one roof; it offers opportunities for startups to find and connect with people that can really push their ideas forward.” In the past week, she says, several entities from different governments within the region have expressed interest in how to link ERN with their dispatch services.

Like Hector and Carlos Costa, Basma says that Dubai has been a significant catalyst to ERN’s growth. “The startup community may be smaller than in other countries, but the advantage is that it is intimate. In a sense, Dubai is still a startup in itself, and it feels right now like we’re catching a giant wave; there’s never been a better time to be an innovator here.”