The UAE’s Thriving Health-Tech Scene

A public-private push for world-class healthcare is driving digital innovation in the Middle East.

Newly-minted graduates (pictured here) of the Dubai 100, an incubator program designed to accelerate the growth of digital health startups, pitched to an audience of investors and healthcare industry experts at the conclusion of the program in the UAE.
Newly-minted graduates of the Dubai 100, an incubator program designed to accelerate the growth of digital health startups, pitched to an audience of investors and healthcare industry experts at the conclusion of the program in the UAE. Photo courtesy of DisruptAfrica

In May, startup Curacel Health pitched its cloud-based electronic medical record system to potential VC funders and development partners. But Curacel isn’t in the same situation as most health-tech startups: It’s a Nigerian company that’s been thriving in a health-tech startup accelerator ecosystem that is emerging in Dubai, in the UAE.

That ecosystem is one element of the UAE’s increasingly strong profile in healthcare, thanks to strong governmental support, an international culture, deep-pocketed investors and a growing list of public and private health facilities built to U.S. standards. Emirati ruler HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan has called for every hospital, public and private, to achieve international accreditation. The healthcare sector there is expected to grow to more than US$28 billion by 2021, according to market-research firm MENA Research Partners.

Health-tech is becoming a critical part of the UAE’s plans to advance in healthcare. Local hospitals, eager to build on the UAE’s emerging reputation in many quarters as a dominant healthcare provider in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, are eager to integrate new technology into their services and operations, notes Peter Makowski, an experienced U.S. hospital leader who became CEO of American Hospital Dubai in 2014. “Innovation is driving our strategic plan,” he says.

One contributor to the innovation is the Dubai-based venture capital firm Falcon and Associates, which has been trying to build a health-tech startup ecosystem in the city from the ground up. Dubbed the Dubai 100, the accelerator’s first cohort graduated in 2016, and included startups like the German company Anvajo, which recently secured funding of US$1.53 million. The intensive 100-day program provides innovators coaching by global and regional experts, industry leaders, healthcare practitioners and investors.

With a population comprising 85 percent expats, Dubai provides entrepreneurs an opportunity to test their ideas on a wide range of patients, doctors and experts from not only the Middle East, but also from Europe, the U.S., and China, among others. “How different cultures deal with health and hospitalization is vastly different,” explains Makowski. “You have to adjust to cultural roots and beliefs.” In fact, the Dubai 100 itself is going international, having scheduled a five-day bootcamp in London in September, followed by one in Shanghai in October.

Still, the UAE is likely to be the biggest beneficiary of the effort. The country’s Ministry of Health has already implemented over a dozen health-tech innovations on a large scale, including deploying the Wareed system for medical record digitization and integration across all public hospitals and clinics. A number of apps are addressing the explosive rise in lifestyle related diseases in the UAE. AmeSante, for example, a Chinese startup that delivers remote glucose readings and provides on-the-spot nutritional advice, is targeting 20 percent of the Emirati population with diabetes. And the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi implemented a preventive health program called the Weqaya, designed to screen adult Emiratis and extract user data for various epidemiological studies of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.

UAE hospital leaders like Makowski see potential for significant healthcare impact in these sorts of efforts. “To work in this kind of environment is incredibly exciting,” he says.

 

— Alex Freedman

Alex Freedman is a freelance healthcare writer based in Portland, Oregon.

 

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