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How open innovation in healthtech hubs is fueling the rise of digital healthcare

Novartis Campus Basel
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How open innovation in healthtech hubs is fueling the rise of digital healthcare

14.11.2023

The average return on investment within pharmaceutical research and development is at an all-time low, and it is frequently observed that billions of euros are poured into the development of drugs that ultimately do not make it to the market. How the ever-increasing uptake of digital solutions is enhancing patient engagement, increasing access to care and lowering the cost of drug development.

Fortunately, digital healthcare technologies may hold the key to increasing pipeline efficiencies, and a new breed of startups looks set to revolutionise the sector, provided they can attract the attention of suitable investors. Healthtech hubs – such as the Novartis Campus in Basel, Switzerland – offer these fledgling companies an environment alongside pharmaceutical giants and other innovative corporations, providing a new collaborative culture to drive drug development deep into the 21st century.

The pharmaceutical industry is behind some of the greatest discoveries in the history of humanity, with distinguished medical minds and novel therapies prolonging lifespans and improving well-being. Vaccines have eradicated diseases and helped to fight global pandemics, while ‘miracle drugs’ such as penicillin and insulin have changed the face of clinical practice, saving millions of lives. However, even with the seemingly endless introduction of new medicines to the clinician’s armamentarium, certain disease areas still lack efficacious therapies, leaving unmet needs and opportunities for companies willing to adapt to enhance drug discovery.

Reinventing the pharmaceutical industry

Digital tools emerging from the booming healthtech sector are responding to the demands of the industry, helping it to evolve so that life-saving therapies can continue to solve the world’s health problems. The ever-increasing uptake of digital solutions is already enhancing patient engagement, increasing access to care, and lowering the cost of drug development.

The latter is especially pertinent for large corporations with multiple therapies in the pipeline, as improving process efficiencies could translate to huge savings. This is evident with the emergence of decentralised and hybrid clinical trials – enabled, in part, by digital tools such as wearable devices with remote monitoring – which offer patients far greater levels of comfort and convenience, while lowering overall costs by improving retention rates, reducing operational overheads and accelerating time to market.

With change comes opportunity

The inevitable shift to a more digitalised industry provides ample opportunities for healthtech startups to grow. Many of these companies have potentially game-changing technologies, but often struggle to find the means to get their ideas to fruition. Conversely, the pharmaceutical giants have ample resources and access to worldwide markets, representing the perfect vehicle for startups to scale, expand globally and get their solutions in front of patients.

The challenge, then, is to bridge the interface between two polar-opposite cultures – startup versus corporate – to enable them to establish successful and symbiotic partnerships.  Healthtech startups are often founded by a mingling of brilliant minds – including scientists, software engineers and health informaticians – but they can lack experience in developing clear, long-term business models, especially when collaborating with big pharma and the exponential scaling that follows.

What they do enjoy and rely on for survival is speed as, with limited resources, they need to move fast. This is in stark contrast to the conservative, risk-averse nature of the pharmaceutical industry, which needs to move slowly, because of the enormous cost of drug development and the ramifications of getting it wrong.

Healthtech hubs – a scientific melting pot

Traditionally, the contrast between these business models could have stopped innovation in its stride. However, modern-day approaches to drug development recognise it as a strength, resulting in the establishment of thriving ecosystems replete with companies of all shapes and sizes.

For example, the Novartis Campus in Basel, Switzerland opened its doors to the outside world in 2021. As a result, the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area was established on site, offering a place for startups, growing companies and partners in the life sciences to work in close proximity to one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. In fact, many of the spaces are publicly accessible, breaking the shackles of the traditionally private pharma ethos. This provides a unique environment designed to catalyse scientific progress by encouraging collaboration between great minds from all aspects of drug discovery, from microbiologists and chemists to healthtech developers and data scientists.

Matthias Leuenberger, Country President for Novartis in Switzerland, weighed in on the subject, saying: “The Novartis Campus in Basel is a space for dialogue, collaboration and scientific innovation, characterised by its dynamic and lively working environment and its unique atmosphere encompassing parks, restaurants, cafes, event spaces and sports facilities.

“Every architectural and artistic detail has been carefully selected to better foster inspiration and cooperation, providing the ideal environment where researchers, entrepreneurs and other experts in the healthcare industry can meet to work on new ideas and develop partnerships.

“We open our doors to companies and institutions of different sizes to inspire and bring the best minds in the industry together in Basel, which has established itself as one of the most important scientific hubs in the world today.”

We open our doors to companies and institutions of different sizes to inspire and bring the best minds in the industry together in Basel, which has established itself as one of the most important scientific hubs in the world today.

Matthias LeuenbergerCountry President for Novartis in Switzerland

A catalyst for innovation

The Basel area is home to over 700 life sciences companies, comprised of more than 32,000 employees – including 8,000 for Novartis at the campus alone – making finding the right person to pitch to, or company to partner with, an intimidating prospect. The startup mindset may lead to individuals eagerly trying to sell their idea or technology, without considering its relevance to the therapeutic indication of the other company’s portfolio.

On the other side of the table, big pharma can be slow to engage its smaller counterparts, where speed – as well as access to funding and resources – can be make-or-break factors.  A means to ignite the critical conversations that lead to the discovery of mutual interests is often needed, followed by a way to nurture the relationship into a successful long-term collaboration.

A major factor for the ongoing success of this healthtech hub is access to support from Basel Area Business & Innovation, an independent, non-profit agency that provides assistance with the relocation or expansion of companies. The company has helped over 30 startups settle in the Novartis Campus, as well as hundreds more businesses and entrepreneurs in the cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft and Jura.

A key aspect of its remit is to provide community management activities on campus – including frequent events, roundtable discussions, pitch sessions and more – to generate networking opportunities. Its DayOne Accelerator has also been vital in helping many startups scale their technologies.

Scaling new heights in Basel

Many of these startups are in the rapidly expanding field of AI, offering products or services through partnerships or software licensing deals that can be applied to pharma pipelines. One notable example is Holmusk – a company originally from Singapore – that expanded its operations to the Novartis Campus to capitalise on the robust life sciences and pharma presence in the Basel area, as well as the wealth of specialised talent. The company uses AI-powered analytics to enrich its large mental health platform ‘NeuroBlu.ai’, helping pharmaceutical companies improve drug development and commercialisation.

The future of healthtech

Pioneering ecosystems such as the Novartis Campus – located in an equally scientifically vibrant city – help to not only accelerate drug discovery and development, but also secure a prosperous future for the region by enticing global players to its shores. The world-class resources, state-of-the-art facilities and varied personnel found there only attract more investment, additional startups and other major pharmaceutical companies, perpetuating the innovative environment that is nurtured by local agencies established to accelerate scientific progress. This has led to a healthtech hub bursting with talent and novel ideas that continues to deliver cutting-edge tools to enhance drug discovery, accelerate time to market and improve patient access to care.

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