Massachusetts, and notably the Boston region, is a breeding ground of innovation for pharmaceutical and digital health startups. Which is why, in February 2018, Servier opened its first office in one of the Commonwealth's global healthcare hubs: Cambridge, MA. Since then, Servier BioInnovation has been working to identify new technologies in America to drive global innovation and research.
Through access to public and private partnerships across Massachusetts including startup accelerators such as MassChallenege HealthTech, and prestigious academic centers such as Harvard and MIT, Servier is bringing France to the "epicenter of digital health revolution" Massachusetts.
We spoke with David Guez, MD, Executive Director, Innovation and Scouting and founder of WeHealth Digital Medicine, to learn more about their collaborations with companies in Massachusetts and their plan to create a knowledge bridge back to Servier's operations in Europe.
Q: Tell me about WeHealth Digital Medicine.
David Guez: Our parent company, Servier Group, is a multi-national pharmaceutical group governed by a non-profit foundation with a total revenue of €4.2 billion (~$4.6 billion USD) and a workforce of 22,000 in 149 countries.
Today, the world faces an incredible explosion of chronic diseases and health expenditure. Despite all efforts to provide better care, the traditional model seems no longer viable. Given technological advances, we are convinced that we have now a tremendous power to tackle this challenge, upgrade the practice of medicine and break numerous silos. Moreover, patients are more and more connected to digital technologies. This observation inspired us to develop new digital health solutions for patients and health care providers.
That's why we created the WeHealth Digital Medicine digital health business unit within the Servier Group in 2016. Through our portfolio of solutions and services, we aim to provide a precise response to patients' needs in terms of follow-up, control, screening or coaching, in order to better prevent, diagnose, monitor, treat, and predict the evolution of diseases. We want to contribute to the creation of an ecosystem of partners to facilitate and accelerate the development, industrialization, and distribution of innovations and to make them accessible to the greatest number.
Q: Why did you decide to partner with MassChallenge HealthTech and collaborate with digital health startups through their program?
David Guez: We believe in Open Innovation to co-create the best solutions and services. MassChallenge HealthTech (MCHT) has become a strategic partner of choice to bring together a large ecosystem to solve healthcare problems. The community comprises startups, champions, business mentors, medical professionals, digital health enthusiasts, and anyone passionate about improving health through entrepreneurship.
WeHealth Digital Medicine has been at their side since the beginning of the program in 2016. We are proud to have been one of their very first Champions, which has allowed us to capture the medico-scientific value of the Bostonian ecosystem and build successful relationships. And this is precisely the value that MCHT provides: there is such huge noise nowadays in the digital health field, we need a high-trusted partner to help us find the right companies to work with. More than an accelerator, MCHT is the high-trusted component.
Q: Can you share with me your experience driving innovation? What have been the biggest challenges and benefits leading this initiative?
David Guez: Innovating in healthcare is not for the faint of heart. New solutions introduce their own set of challenges: adoption, personalization, scalability, regulatory concerns, … if we want to make an impact for patients and the whole healthcare ecosystem, we need to be prepared to transform the way people act. It is not just about a product. It is all about changing practices. That's why we believe that joining forces is vital. Entrepreneurs cannot work alone. We need to be part of an ecosystem and build meaningful relationships.
As an organization, we also need to be prepared for numerous failures to achieve successes. Innovation should be recognized as a strategic pillar in the company and a sustainable and effective organization needs to be prepared to achieve goals, with the right set of resources, processes, and mindset. As with many strategic activities, it comes down to leadership to break silos, balance the tension between core business and innovation, and empower and engage teams in an exciting venture.
Q: What can you tell us about the innovation ecosystem in Europe?
David Guez: For a few years, there has been a true collaboration to initiate a digital innovation process across all European Union countries. Healthcare is of course at the heart of this debate, as we face similar challenges as the U.S.: explosion of chronic diseases, medical desertification, and high expenditures due to hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, regulations are evolving to support this innovation. For instance, a new Medical Device Regulation is planned for May 2020. Data protection is also a major topic, with the Global Data Protection Regulation in place since 2018. In France, Artificial Intelligence has been declared a national interest, with a lot of proposals emerging. Another example of digital health innovation is Estonia, which has become a leading ecosystem for digital health in the world.
Q: What has your experience been working with digital health startups?
David Guez: Since the very beginning, we have been looking for Open Innovation in order to create our business unit. Working with startups has given us a significant advantage in terms of rapidity, experience learning, and strategic thinking about our model. Coming from a medium/large organization, we are looking for agility to decide fast.
On a day-to-day basis, we try to turn our differences into assets to build win-win partnerships. Organization, culture, maturity, agility - there are many ways to leverage our complementary traits. So, when working with startups we try to quickly understand if the mindset of the startup will fit with our model: Has the market been qualified? Is there the right balance between disruption and the ability to be adopted in a highly conservative industry? How will the new product / service interact with its future environment? Has the regulatory pathway been identified? Is there a clear vision of who will be the users and the buyers? Does the startup anticipate any issue for in scaling? How can we take medical value from data? And last but not least: Are there the right people within the team?
Q: What advice would you give startups looking to partner with organizations in Europe?
David Guez: First, understand that the European Union is a mix of different cultures, where five to ten countries maximum can capture innovation to transform them in a business. Regulation is also going to change in 2020, likely allowing more harmonization with FDA regulation in the future.
Q: What advice would you give to European organizations looking to partner with digital health startups?
David Guez: The U.S. is a leading country for innovation, disruption, new business models, and data. The U.S. market is large and needs a local presence to develop partnerships with digital health startups.
Developing innovative eHealth solutions to advance patient care takes collaboration with strategic partners throughout the digital health ecosystem. And with a city, state, and country that leads the charge for innovation, disruption, business, and data, Boston is the place to be to launch healthcare’s digital revolution.