Saudi Inventors Show the Way to Economic Transformation Through Healthcare Innovation
By: Mark Schultz
In emerging economies, encouraging innovation in healthcare can improve the health of a nation’s people and its economy. Saudi Arabia recognized this fact when it made transformation of the country’s healthcare sector a central plank of its ambitious Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the Kingdom’s economy beyond petroleum and into knowledge-intensive, high-value technological innovation.
A generation of young Saudi inventors is showing how that vision can be realized through IP-driven health innovation. One of these inventors is Meshal Al-Harasani, who despite being in his early 30s already has produced over 50 inventions, and holds over 20 patents. Al-Harsani began inventing when he was 13, starting with an invention to help people with special needs. Other patented inventions include one to help newborns in the hospital and a device designed to produce electricity from kinetic energy by absorbing energy from moving cars in the roadway.
One of his most recent patented inventions is a flexible, serrated needle that can be used for surgery on cartilage. He developed the device working with Dr. Abdul Karim Reza Fidaa. The flexible needle can be inserted under the skin, reducing the need for invasive surgery when addressing congenital defects of the ear and nose. According to Fidaa, they also hope it “will enable knee surgery without opening the knee cartilage.”
The inventors have partnered with King Abdul-Aziz University and a French company to develop the device, and have signed a contract with a U.S. manufacturing company to produce and distribute the device.
Al-Harsani sees the needle as fulfilling the promise of Vision2020: “The invention is a Saudi message to the world that we are beginning to achieve the Vision2030.” He hopes his patents will inspire other young Saudis, saying that there “are thousands of Saudi inventors today and all they need is encouragement and mentoring.” “With Saudi Vision 2030, our country is on its way to the first world. Our government believes in the Saudi youth. We are passionate about developing our country.”
Dr. Mohammed Alshehri, an inventor, entrepreneur, and specialist in restorative and implant dentistry at King Khalid University Hospital, is another health innovator in Saudi Arabia. Alsheri had observed the problem of infection after root canal surgery. The opening created by the surgery tended to allow bacteria to infiltrate and cause infection.
Dr. Alsheri’s solution is the Endodontic Apical Plug, which is a tool for filling root canal cavities. The plug is made of a biocompatible material, which is inserted into the gap, sealing it off from bacteria.
The invention has been recognized for its importance. It won a Gold Medal at the 8th International Invention Fair in the Middle East. More important, it has been awarded patents in several jurisdictions, including the United States, the European Patent Office, and Saudi Arabia. Dr. Alsheri is currently seeking patents for other innovative dentistry tools and techniques.
The Kingdom is home to several other promising medical technology startups, some of which are using cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence (AI). They include Healthpro.ai, a company that is using machine learning and artificial intelligence to develop algorithms to aid in diagnosing and treating health ailments. So far, the company has developed an application that is able to scan a patient’s skin condition and offer a potential diagnosis based on its database of conditions and a proprietary algorithm. Z-Datacloud offers an AI-driven platform for conducting clinical trials and other scientific research that automates previously labor-intensive parts of the process, such as conducting screening of potential subjects. These applications of AI to healthcare offer great promise, but Saudi Arabia may need to update its very basic trade secret regulations to ensure that these emerging companies can more effectively protect their intellectual property rights.
Saudi Arabia needs what its healthcare innovators and entrepreneurs offer. First, it seeks to improve the health of its citizens. Despite its great resources, Saudi Arabia lags behind other countries on certain key health metrics. For example, life expectancy is 75 years, short of the greater than 80 years in most western European countries. Also, the Kingdom’s infant mortality rate is double that of most western countries. Local innovators are more likely to meet such needs, as they are most aware of them and in the best position to address local challenges. Also, these startups could help Saudi Arabia diversify beyond oil into a global, advanced-technology growth industry. Being a “first-world” nation is not only about achieving a certain amount of GDP or per-capita income. Rather, it is also about joining a community of nations that support the unique creative and innovative talents of their peoples to produce innovations. This IP-supported innovative activity, particularly in the life-sciences sector, benefits all of humankind.
Indeed, the key to making health innovation work for Saudi Arabia is effective IP rights. Inventors such as Meshal Al-Harasani and Dr. Alsheri understand that the best way to capture the fruits of their hard work is to secure it with a patent. Similarly, startups face a challenging battle against global competition and need the security of IP rights to protect their edge.
Saudi Arabia thus shows that healthcare innovation happens throughout the world. The work of Saudi entrepreneurs holds promise for solving both economic and health challenges in the Kingdom.