Is This Healthtech’s Big Moment?

Andre Heeg is a trained facial reconstruction surgeon, and Managing Director and Partner at BCG Digital Ventures, where he specializes in healthcare ventures. His background includes helping to digitalize one of the largest pharmaceutical companies worldwide, and working at one of the earliest healthtech startups in the United States. As Andre prepares for the first annual Bits & Pretzels HealthTech Conference in Munich, we spoke with him about the present and future opportunities in the healthtech space.

BCGDV: Andre, congrats on hosting the growth stage at this year’s Bits & Pretzels HealthTech Conference. What are some of the trends in healthtech you’re most excited about?

One key area where a lot of momentum is happening right now is patient relations — which includes anything related to patient data and making data useful to deliver better care. Another exciting area, as outlined in the recent BCG Digital Ventures report, “The Future of Digital Health”, is a stronger focus on the individual needs of patients, and increasing access to solutions in women’s health, psychological health, and related areas. All of that is obviously happening against the backdrop of continually rising health care prices, so we need innovation in order to work more efficiently than the current methods allow.

BCGDV: What areas of healthtech have you been working on at BCGDV, and what have you learned?

At BCGDV, we’ve worked on a very broad spectrum of digital healthcare projects. For example, one was a project helping people who suffer from a very rare hematological disorder that’s extremely burdensome for the patients. This disease can’t be healed digitally, but we helped to develop a solution that allows patients to keep track of their medication regimen, and monitor their lifestyle choices. Over time, this can provide insights on the right medication and ideal dosage. These so-called ‘orphan diseases’ are a very specialized field of medicine, but the people suffering from them deserve the same attention and care as patients with more common illnesses.

BCGDV: Healthcare is a highly regulated environment, and it took a while for digital innovation to gain traction. Are we now seeing healthtech catch up with other fields?

Compared to many other sectors, healthcare is still lagging behind most. Some areas of our lives are already fully digitalized, but our healthcare system is nowhere near that yet. However, the past two years have seen a lot of new demand and acceptance for healthtech, and the digitalization of healthcare has gained a lot of speed. Telemedicine and remote care options are becoming much more popular. The last-mile delivery options we’ve seen with groceries also allow medicine to be delivered to your doorstep. I think the healthcare sector still has to catch up, but I’m seeing momentum.

BCGDV: What major shifts are we seeing in the healthtech sector in general, and what do you expect for the near future?

Telemedicine — which Germany in particular had a hard time accepting, as we explain in this report — has meanwhile almost become a commodity. The challenge now is to make it as easy, seamless, and user-friendly as picking up the phone and making an appointment at your doctor’s office, or scheduling an appointment online. For the near future, I see AI becoming even more important in healthtech. The machine learning algorithms behind AI are constantly getting better, while at the same time doctors and patients alike are more and more willing to trust them. The challenge here is that there’s always been a ton of data in the healthcare sector, but it wasn’t really usable. It was, and still is, often unstructured, ranging from a lab result to a doctor’s handwritten note. The data sits in different silos, and there are often privacy and security concerns about who gets to see what. There’s no single source, which makes it hard to work with this data, and that’s a shame, because algorithms have become really powerful and can work magic if they’re fed with high-quality data.

BCGDV: Can you give us any examples?

There are many different approaches to cancer treatment, for example. But they are often not really personalized and do not fully take into account the constitution of the individual patient. AI can look at the type, speed, location, and growth of the cancer cells, and then determine the best treatment. The use cases for AI in medicine are almost unlimited. Drug development is a very important area. In the field of proteomics, for example, AI has the potential to predict the structure of thousands of proteins. Treatments and ingredients for medications can be found and tested much more quickly with AI. Another area is diagnostics: machine learning algorithms are already very good at visual recognition. From photos of a melanoma and MRI pictures to the live streams of an endoscopic examination, algorithms can determine and analyze abnormalities very quickly and reliably, and can be an amazing support for human doctors.

BCGDV: In the past few months we’ve seen rising inflation, layoffs across the board at startup companies , and VCs being more conservative with funding. How would you describe the current climate in the startup ecosystem?

The macro situation in the startup world has certainly shifted. In past years, we’ve seen constant growth of valuations and funding rounds. It seemed every quarter was a new record in money raised by startups, and unicorns were emerging left and right. Money was relatively easy to access for startups, almost free. Now startups are finding it much tougher to raise money than even six months ago.

BCGDV: Is healthtech being hit in the same way as other sectors?

We haven’t seen layoffs in healthtech like we’ve seen in fintech. But the economic environment is the same: healthtech startups also have to prove they have a valid business model and that there’s a market for the product they’re building. Healing people, or at least helping them cope with their illness, will always remain a high-priority goal for our society. The healthcare market is here to stay, and at the same time patients’ expectations about what is treatable, and how help is administered, are rising rather than falling. It could therefore be a silver lining for the healthtech industry that in many cases they are solving real problems. The big opportunity for healthtech, in my opinion, is that if a company and its service or product is successful, it can improve the lives of millions of patients and their families, and at the same time save society, health insurers, and others a lot of money.

BCGDV: Final question: what’s your favorite healthtech gadget or health app?

Because of my job, and because I’m passionate about the topic, I use a lot of different things. I’ve tried out every fitness tracker there is, and at any given time I’ll have dozens of health apps on my phone. What I find fascinating right now are solutions for DNA testing and constant glucose monitoring (GCM), i.e. data collected from within our own body. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we can influence our well-being and change minor things that are off — without going down the rabbit hole of permanent and absolute self-optimization.

For more information about the Bits & Pretzels HealthTech Conference click here.

To read BCG’s report, “The Untapped Potential of Ecosystems in Healthcare,” click here.

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