By Danielle Shapira, Principal, Maverick Ventures Israel*
The information and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Start-Up Nation Central.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the globe, the world is facing an unprecedented crisis, carrying enormous financial and social costs unimaginable until recently. But these great difficulties also present opportunities for bold innovators to bypass bureaucracy and leapfrog their competitors, while rolling out revolutionary products at speed and scale. With the right leadership, innovative startups can use downturns to their advantage in the midst of economic crises. This can clearly be seen in Israel’s unique digital health innovation ecosystem.
The digital health sector is prospering in Israel. With more than 550 innovative companies**, technology hubs, R&D centers, incubators, and multinational corporations in this space, the vibrant Israeli digital health ecosystem has more than doubled in size from 2011 to 2019. Now, the Startup Nation is leading the way with hundreds of scientists, innovators and investors racing to fight coronavirus. From faster diagnosis of COVID-19, to virtual homecare monitoring, to personalized medicine solutions – disruptive technologies are being created and passed into service at extraordinary rates.
As historian Yuval Noah Harari recently stated, “decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours… In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times.” Despite the risks these somewhat hurried experiments could pose to data privacy and potentially other civil liberties, many believe this may be a “once-in-a-plaguetime” opportunity for Israeli entrepreneurs to fast-track entry of novel technologies into the market.
Scarcity of epidemiological data
In order to roll out cutting-edge solutions and interventions, we vitally need one thing: easy collection and shared access to reliable global medical data and insights. Experts claim that Big Data – which analyzes large and complex datasets – should be at the heart of the efforts to understand and forecast the impact that COVID-19 and other pandemics will have on all of us. But surprisingly, in today’s digital world, such open flow of information barely exists in the healthcare sector.
One of the most debated issues is the absence of epidemiological data on COVID-19 incidences in representative random samples of the general population. Just recently, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new stunning evidence about the state of the virus: of 397 asymptomatic people tested at Boston’s homeless shelter Pine Street Inn, 146 people, or 37%, tested positive for coronavirus. This is at a time when confirmed positive cases in Massachusetts amounted to roughly 0.4%. Similarly, researchers from Stanford University who recently tested 3,300 Californians in Santa Clara County for antibodies, found that the number of people who had been infected in the county was between 50 and 85 times higher than the confirmed case total.
Better predict the next outbreak
Equally important is the lack of clinical data on possible COVID-19 therapies. Three months into the outbreak, physicians are fighting an elusive enemy blindfolded, turning to experimental treatments without knowing where to look and which strategies are most likely to work. The lack of both epidemiological and clinical data has become a huge concern for Dr. Dekel Taliaz, CEO of personalized medicine startup Taliaz, and President of Digital Health Technologies Israel, an umbrella body representing the digital health ecosystem in Israel.
“We would be in a totally different place if we had better access to up-to-date global medical insights”, he says. “Rather than decisionmakers relying on outdated or irrelevant statistics, they would be able to make flexible decisions based on real-life conditions.”
This, of course, applies to future outbreaks of COVID-19 and other pandemics, as it gives the world data and tools to be able to better predict and pinpoint the next outbreak.
Real-time insights can outpace coronavirus
Imagine a world in which, based on artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, tailored sets of protocols with different levels of rigor could be implemented for every city, county and neighborhood. This is where startups like Israel’s Diagnostic Robotics come in. Together with Israel’s Ministry of Health, Diagnostic Robotics monitors, models and predicts infection trends over time, including daily geographic spread of exposed, suspected, confirmed and deteriorating patients. These dynamic COVID-19 “heat maps” support forecasts of community-level risk and expected strain on healthcare resources.
Other groundbreaking innovations include Datos Health’s new remote management system for home-quarantined COVID-19 cases; and Binah.ai’s real-time remote vital signs monitoring app, which allows anyone to easily measure oxygen saturation, respiration rate, heart rate and heart rate variability – just by looking into a smartphone camera. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“The novel coronavirus is highly contagious and spreads at higher rates than initially estimated,” Dr. Taliaz says. “This means we need to support the development of digital tools with real-time insights that can outpace coronavirus.” Taliaz has developed an artificial intelligence platform that analyzes clinical, demographic and genetic data to help doctors reduce trial and error by prescribing the right medication from the outset.
Decisionmakers need data to effectively conduct public health interventions
Considering the urgency and profound implications of the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare systems must act now, and some already do: the Israeli Ministry of Health has already opened access to its coronavirus database; similarly, South Korea has released a new website portal to support a global research collaboration on COVID-19.
While these are substantial strides forward, much information is still missing. Healthcare innovation is the backbone that will help us adapt, respond and overcome this pandemic. It is therefore critical to put in place an immediate global plan that makes the secure collection and sharing of anonymized, encrypted medical data a top priority. Now is the time to provide decisionmakers with the valuable data they need to transform existing rigid, static protocols into dynamic, data-driven public health interventions. If we choose global cooperation, we may not only protect our deeply interconnected world from coronavirus, but also prepare it for future pandemics.
*Maverick Ventures Israel has invested in Diagnostic Robotics and Binah.ai.
**Does your startup help in the global fight against coronavirus? Let us know.
Visit CoronaTech Israel to learn more about COVID-19 solutions, funding opportunities, and more.