The medical device market in ASEAN is predicted to be worth US$8.5 billion by 2021 according to Forbes magazine. Forbes also calculates the start-up ecosystem in Southeast Asia will be worth more than US$13 billion by 2020. But is Thailand doing enough to support healthcare industry start-ups and secure a leading position in those markets?
by John Battersby
Thailand is well poised for building and sustaining a start-up culture, encouraged by the government’s Thailand 4.0 vision; which has seen entire sectors of the economy being rebuilt with new technology and overseas investment. A dedicated programme ‘Start-up Thailand’, set up by the National Innovation Agency (NIA), it hopes to accomplish this by reforming government procurement, building innovation districts, and increasing international cooperation.
To find out more, we spoke with Dr. Kakanand Srungboonmee, from the Centre of Data Mining and Biomedical Informatics, Faculty of Medical Technology, Mahidol University, in Bangkok Thailand.
Besides being an academic, innovator and start-up founder herself, Dr. Srungboonmee is also key in curating the speakers and topics for the Start-up Podium which will take place at the Medical Fair Thailand 2019 from 11 to 13 September in Bangkok.
1. How would you describe the life sciences and medical/ health start-up scene in Thailand?
The life sciences and medical/health start-up ecosystem in Thailand is at an early stage. We are comparatively new to the idea of innovating our own solutions to our own problems. We have been good customers for a long time, using products invented and manufactured from different parts of the world. When those foreign products do not really meet our needs, we have used our adaptive tendencies to make them work for us or we have worked around their shortfalls. Now that is beginning to change, and we are seeing more Thai start-ups innovating solutions for the local market.
One of the challenges we face at this stage is that the innovators/developers are often working at a distance from the healthcare environment without direct input from healthcare professionals. That can lead to the true needs of patients or healthcare professionals not really being met. We need more collaboration between healthcare professionals and the innovators, and the IT and engineering professionals trying to develop solutions. At the beginning of the process we need the healthcare professionals to identify an unmet need and then we need them to be giving feedback to the development team throughout the process.
Another challenge is that coaches and mentors for medical industry start-ups are difficult to find as the industry is still young in Thailand. Again, collaboration could be the answer. If entrepreneurs with start-up experience in other tech sectors, healthcare professionals, young MedTech innovators, established industry players, and the government sector can work together, we can build the necessary ecosystem to support MedTech start-ups.
2. Why is it important to innovate for the life sciences and medical/ health industry?
Innovation is important for the life sciences and medical/health industry because the current healthcare model is unsustainable. The traditional healthcare system has focused on treating people in hospital and then sending them home and the innovation has focused on looking for new treatments. But waiting for people to become acutely ill and then treating them is very expensive, and as our population grows older, that approach will become unsustainable. Innovation in the life sciences and medical/health needs to focus on promoting wellness and a healthier lifestyle. It needs to be looking for preventative treatments, earlier detection of disease and earlier interventions to treat or manage the disease before it becomes serious and requires hospitalization.
3. What are the main challenges in innovating for the life sciences and medical/ health industry in Thailand?
We do not really have a co-working space specifically designed for life sciences and medical/health innovation. Developers and clinicians are working in their own silos and not sharing ideas, they are physically separated from the clinicians and healthcare professionals. The innovators are working in offices over here, the engineers are in an industrial park over there and the clinicians and healthcare professionals are in a hospital somewhere else; they are not all part of the same ecosystem. So, their true requirements are not really being met because they are not talking to, and working with, the innovators and developers.
4. How can these challenges be overcome?
We need to have co-working spaces that are especially designed for healthcare innovation. The co-working space should facilitate the development of the sort of ecosystem needed for medical industry innovation, with good coaching and mentoring systems from the clinical and industry sides. There should be start-up incubation spaces and engineering facilities on the campuses of the big research hospitals and collaboration and communication should be encouraged and facilitated.
5. What are the main challenges in founding and sustaining a life sciences and medical/ health start-ups in Thailand?
We do not have good coaches and mentors with experience in the medical business. Most of the start-up incubators do not really work with or have experience in medical industry. Start-ups must find their own ways or share resources, including investor resources, with start-ups in other industries. We also need investors who understand the challenges faced by life sciences and medical/ health start-ups. General investors are interested in the healthcare industry, but they are used to faster development times and seeing quicker returns on their investments in other sectors. Challenges faced by the life sciences and medical/ health sectors such as the longer time needed for development and clinical trials, stricter standards and more restrictive marketing regulations, usually cause general investors to give up.
6. How can these challenges be overcome?
We need incubators who are experienced in life sciences and medical/health industry. Longer term support is also needed in the life sciences and medical/health industry; accelerators should work not just at the level of incubating the business but also in the various stages of development.
Additionally, because investing in the healthcare industry costs more and takes longer to see returns compared to other industries, healthcare start-ups need opportunities to meet with investors who are familiar with the life sciences and medical/health industry and understand the challenges and time frames involved.
7. What can be done to make innovation a stronger priority for the life sciences and medical/ health industry in Thailand?
The government, industry players, innovators all need to realize that life sciences and medical/ health innovation promotes sustainable wellness and wellbeing. It is this technology that directly helps us live healthier and better lives. An ecosystem suitable for life sciences and medical/health innovation should be created to help accelerate the innovations that will promote living longer, healthier, happier, and economically more sustainable lives among the Thai population. [APBN]
About the Interviewee
Dr. Kakanand Srungboonmee, from the Centre of Data Mining and Biomedical Informatics, Faculty of Medical Technology, Mahidol University, in Bangkok Thailand