An artificial intelligence (AI) based analysis of echocardiograms that assists with patient diagnosis via “mouse-click” could likely be a valuable tool for clinicians. But bringing such a visionary product to market would be no easy task, especially for small, unknown startup companies.
In reality, Roche Diagnostics’ cardiac division did indeed find the developer of this product. It occurred in the same showcase for startups where other divisions of Roche Diagnostics have found developers for a range of novel advances in digital health.
The Startup Creasphere biotech accelerator/incubator was hatched in September 2018 as the largest health innovation platform in Munich, Germany. It is coordinated by the California Silicon Valley-based Plug and Play for Roche, the founding corporate sponsor and Sanofi Consumer Healthcare (CHC); and other product development partners that include Lonza Pharma & Biotech, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The purpose of Startup Creasphere, according to Plug and Play, is to serve as “a hub of health innovation in Europe where forward-thinking corporations and disruptive startups can meet to pilot solutions and services, drive investments, learn and share experiences and facilitate international expansion.”1
Jochen Hurlebaus, PhD, MBA, Head of Digital Health Innovation at Roche Diagnostics, finds that the program has effectively expedited innovation. This accelerator/incubator platform and the promising start-up companies and products that it has showcased have also impressed many others at Roche.
In the first four batches of the program, Hurlebaus estimates that over 200 of his colleagues were sufficiently intrigued by the companies and their ideas to have juggled their ongoing tasks and schedules for the opportunity to collaborate on the sometimes unexpected, and often rapidly breaking developments in digital health.
“We really wanted to capture the symbiotic benefits of working with startups,” Hurlebaus explained. “The small companies can have great ideas, and they’re very quick and agile in developing them. The big company; however, will have a lot of strengths, such as a global network and a lot of expertise when it comes to regulatory review, that the startup does not have.”
Creating the Creasphere
The parameters for Startup Creasphere were explicit, Hurlebaus indicated. “We wanted to create a program that is very interactive. For our business area, it actually had to be in Munich. Here, we have the biggest R and D, and to give the 6 to 7,000 people from Diagnostics and Pharma the opportunity to work with startups, we had to have it close.”
Hurlebaus also wanted to avoid the common practice of inviting a large number of prospects to make pitches, without consideration of what might be of particular interest to, or synergistic with the sponsors.
Instead, he preferred the approach taken in a platform developed by Daimler, with the moniker, Startup Autobahn. “They had the same concept as us,” Hurlebaus said. “Let us find the business owner that is in need of a digital solution or has an idea about a digital topic, and he’s looking for somebody to help.”
“We then start the selection process which, for us, takes about two to three months, and Plug and Play is doing a lot to expedite this selection process” Hurlebaus said.
Although Plug and Play develops and coordinates accelerator/incubator programs across multiple industries, it has devoted particular attention to the unique needs and circumstances in healthcare, according to Julia Belaya, Corporate Partnerships Director, Health at Plug and Play.
“The healthcare industry is notoriously slow to change and innovate…due to factors such as regulation, patient safety, data privacy, etc,” Belaya commented. “We’ve had to take this into account when designing the Startup Creasphere program and setting KPIs (key performance indicators).”
“We would rather focus the program on fewer, carefully pre-selected startups that each have a set possible engagement with one of our corporate partners,” she explained. “We also take into account our partner’s preferences, and work with more of the later stage startups in the Startup Creasphere program, than in a lot of other accelerators.”
Batches of Breakthrough Innovations
The Singapore-based company, eko.ai, that developed an AI-assisted analysis of echocardiograms, for example, had been selected as the top startup in the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) before participating in Startup Creasphere.
James Hare, CEO and Co-founder began the company after receiving inconclusive and disparate assessments from consultants on his own echocardiogram. He described their product at the “Batch 4” session of the Startup Creasphere.
“eko.ai uses machine learning to automate the fight against heart disease. We’ve developed a fully automated AI platform for the analysis of echocardiograms, which are doctors’ tool of choice to visualize the heart,” Hare said.
The company and the product had been noticed by scientists at Roche even before their participation at Startup Creasphere, according to Tijana Krnjeta Janicijevic, PharmD, PhD, Senior International Medical Affairs Manager, Roche Diagnostics International.
“We had already spotted eko.ai, due to their exceptional combination of deep knowledge and expertise one the one side, as well as commercial excellence on the other side,” she said.
Janicijevic explained how the collaboration with eko.ai was able to proceed in virtual meetings, as the batch 4 schedule of Startup Creasphere was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In this project, partners are spread between Singapore, Netherlands, UK and Switzerland, and the virtual setup was the most efficient way to proceed with this collaboration,” she said. “So, we defined the clear objectives, timelines, and did a very detailed project planning: setting up practical goals and where we would discuss all questions and align the next steps.”
Another example of successful collaboration, Hurlebaus noted, is with the Belgium-based company, FibriCheck, from the first, batch 1 of Startup Creasphere. The company has described part of its mission as making “healthcare widely available, affordable and unlinked to time and location.”
Their principal product is an app for smart phones to enable early detection of heart rhythm disorders, with their principal focus on atrial fibrillation. During their collaboration with Roche, they were successful in obtaining FDA clearance for the app. They have also recently reached an agreement with Fitbit to embed the app into that company’s smartwatch.2
“For me, this process represents one of the biggest changes we have achieved in how people view what is possible,” Hurlebaus commented.
There are two Startup Creasphere sessions held annually, with hundreds of startups from across the globe considered, and invitations extended to those with the most promising and forward-thinking innovations. The Startup Creasphere provides a venue for developers to present their ideas, products, and vision, not only in seeking collaboration with Roche and other corporate partners, but in learning and sharing their experiences with others who are driven to “disrupt” and accelerate advances in healthcare.
1. Plug and Play, press release. “Plug and Play launches the first health-focused innovation program in Munich—“Startup Creasphere”, September 20, 2018. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/plug-and-play-launches-the-first-health-focused-innovation-program-in-munich—startup-creasphere-300715692.html?tc=eml_cleartime. Accessed July 14, 2020.
2. Fitbit and FibriCheck, press release. “Fitbit and FibriCheck announce expansion of partnership to deliver CE-marked heart health detection app to more Fitbit Smartwatch users in Europe., March 3, 2020. https://investor.fitbit.com/press/press-releases/press-release-details/2020/Fitbit-and-FibriCheck-Expand-Partnership-to-Deliver-CE-Marked-Heart-Health-Detection-App-to-More-Fitbit-Smartwatch-Users-in-Europe-/default.aspx. Accessed July 14, 2020.