Can technology make us healthier? These Dubai 100 startups think so

Could one of these young companies be the next FitBit, or Guahao?

‘The most important part of understanding healthcare technology is to recognise that it’s not just ‘digital’ health,” said Dr Hakim Yadi, OBE.  

“I didn’t watch a digital movie last night – I just watched a movie. I didn’t do my digital banking – I just did my banking. Patients don’t call it digital health. And I think that’s the challenge; turning it from being something that’s just new and exciting, into something that’s real and part of our everyday.”

The Chief Executive of Northern Health Science Alliance was speaking at Dubai 100 Pitch Day, which took place at Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU).

Dr Amer Sharif, Vice Chancellor of the MBRU, introduces the event
Dr Amer Sharif, Vice Chancellor of the MBRU, introduces the event

Six startups originating from Europe, Asia and Africa took to the stage to showcase tech-driven solutions to global health challenges in the culmination of an intensive three-month accelerator programme which brought together young startups from all over the world to leverage Dubai as a testbed to fast-track innovation and unlock global opportunities.

From wearables designed to support pregnancy to apps for diabetes to the introduction of an electronic medical records system in West Africa, the solutions presented may have been digitally-minded, but as Yadi pointed out, all had very real benefits for the future of health.

“The digital health space now is incredibly busy and the signal to noise ratio is difficult, but there were a few companies that really stood out,” Yadi commented, earmarking Modoo, the pregnancy wearable which allows mothers to monitor their baby’s movement and GripAble, a portable hand-grip device to improve rehabilitation for patients with upper-limb function difficulties, as particularly of interest.

“With some of the other companies, even though the offering might be similar to other products or systems that already exist in the market, it will be interesting to see what extent those kinds of companies can build a home-market presence” he said, adding that Chinese startups may be poised to penetrate their own market in a way that a Western company would not be able to.

The Dubai 100 Pitch Day was held at the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine
The Dubai 100 Pitch Day was held at the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine

Maher Abouzeid, President and CEO of Eastern Growth Markets at GE Healthcare was similarly enamoured of Modoo, as he discussed the interest in this wearable and others like it by GE Ventures, the VC subsidiary of General Electric that operates out of Silicon Valley.

“I like the fetal monitor and see two directions the company could go in – that of a lifestyle gadget, or a medical device used in ambulances or by GPs,” he said. “These kinds of wearables are definitely of interest to GE… we’re basically looking for anything that is disruptive, as we believe patients are going to sooner or later move out of the hospital. Traditional machines like the MRi, the CT scan, the X-ray are going to shrink, but healthcare is going to grow exponentially.”

Both Abouzeid and Yadi indicated that the choice of location was a good fit for a young company, stating that regulatory burdens were not too heavy to be shouldered by a younger company, and easier access to industry decision-makers meant that even a small organisation had a chance to get noticed.

“The thing about Dubai is the infrastructure is that funding and financing are available. Lots of people are looking for smart ideas to finance,” said Abouzeid.

“It’s attractive because it’s a friendly, safe environment with an ecosystem that people such as Roland Daher, the head of the Dubai 100 programme, are really starting to build on,” added Yadi.

Dr Paul Rinne, founder of GripAble, a Dubai 100 startup
Dr Paul Rinne, founder of GripAble, a Dubai 100 startup

“Dubai is a gateway to the Middle East as well as the other markets. Companies can go and do a startup in London or Berlin, but if you choose to start here, you have access to the US and Asia all at the same time. That will give you scale: the most important consideration of a startup.”

For Carlos Costa, a Dubai 100 alumni, the effects of joining the programme were life changing. The Argentinian native and his brother were co-founders of OTTAA Project, an augmentative alternative communication system, for people with speech impairments. Although truly innovative, the pair struggled to get funding from Argentina, and were on the verge of giving up their business.

It is support that accelerators such as this provide, he says, that give young startups the confidence they need to push forward with their idea.

“Dubai 100 got us here into the region, they gave us support, mentoring and the most important asset of all; a change of mindset,” he says.  

“And I know other startups in the programme will feel the same way as we do – that we’re not just a startup from Argentina now.  We’re a global business.”