Roberto Ascione welcomes attendees to where healthcare meets innovation. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

Cross-Pollination at Frontiers Health 2018

Discovery and Networking Advance Digital Health

Frontiers Health is a remarkable conference in both its scope and focus. It’s a mental game-changer with a clear purpose: to alter the way we think about digital health.

Last year, I wrote about what makes Frontiers Health so unique. What I’m curious about this year is how the stated themes of discovery and networking came to life. It’s definitely a cross-pollination experience.

FH18 was held at Funkhaus, the former East Berlin radio broadcasting house. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

As an Ambassador for this edition– a new feature of the conference– I had the honor of collaborating with Roberto Ascione’s talented team of organizers, spreading the word to the global community via social media, and introducing a guest speaker.

A new feature of FH18 was conference ambassadors, which included scientists, investors, journalists, and other e-health pioneers. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

I witnessed first-hand how these two crucial themes of discovery and networking played out at Frontiers Health.

Here’s how:

Discovery happens because you stumble upon, or strategically attend, informative talks and diverse panels curated to offer multiple perspectives. You learn from people you might never have had contact with: pharma execs, AI wizards, famous podcasters, European students, NGO reps, Doctors without Borders, etc. Which brings me to the topic of PEOPLE who attend.

Networking sounds fairly mundane, but here it’s elevated. As Matteo Penzo, Founder and CEO of the Frontiers Conferences, said in his intro, Frontiers Health is “adding the human dimension to the digital dimension.”

I met bloggers, researchers, founders, investors, and thought-leaders in a very natural setting, a.k.a the lunch line. We could immediately spar about digital health and our perspectives on this multi-faceted topic that inevitably affects us all at some stage in our lives.

Networking opportunities abounded throughout the two-day event. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018


Below is a rapid-fire assessment of six presentations covering a range of topics that reveal some of what’s happening across the digital health spectrum. (Note that for this piece, I focus on the first day of the conference. And that said, there were so many worthy, simultaneous events that I cover only a portion of the full offerings here.)

Topics include sensors, decision-making, diabetes innovation, partnership tips, and investment awareness.

  1. Digimeds as Business Multipliers
  2. Why Trust Autonomous Agents?
  3. Not Waiting Around– the DIY Artificial Pancreas
  4. Skirting ad-hoc Partnerships in Healthcare
  5. Digital Health in the Developing World
  6. Early Investment Panel Insights (& Homework)

The conference got off to a strong start with Andrew Thompson from Proteus Digital Health who addressed the number one problem in pharma – R&D productivity – by discussing digestible, or ingestible, sensors. My ears were perked. He mentioned mental health and infectious disease as two areas where these sensors make a huge difference.

1. Digimeds Multiply the Business Value

Thompson discussed how digital medicines can help alleviate issues in mental health patients who can’t miss medications without disrupting their behavior, and in hepatitis C patients.

Andrew Thompson from Proteus explains digimeds as a business multiplier. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

According to Thompson, Digital Medicine, or DigiMed is a human-centered design that allows everyone to engage in their own care and enables more personalized care. He stressed that regarding medication adherence, it’s not a flaw in the patients but rather a flaw in the product design. Digital tech is not an add-on but a multiplier; digimeds multiply the value of a franchise.

Thompson says the FDA has created a new category that is the healthcare opportunity of a lifetime.

2. Autonomous Agents Need Trust & Communication Powers

Jumping over to a philosophical talk by Gabriel Scali from Reckon Digital provided a contrast in focus. Scali says “healthcare is the king of dynamic environments.” So he explored how scalable autonomous agents can become affordable as they aid in decision-making across healthcare settings. But a necessary precursor to that scenario is trust and transparency.

Scali mentioned there is a “time dimension to trust.”

In other words, people typically need to have a history with something or someone to be able to see his, her, or its competence. Additionally, there must be an understandability to the communication with that person or thing. Communication thrives on transparency.

Gabriel Scali from Reckon Digital on autonomous agents in healthcare. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

Autonomous agents need to be able to communicate their current state of ‘what’s my data or action, as well as my reasoning or prediction of the future’. In order to do that, we need proper channels for this communication. Working in IoT, this is a very relatable situation.

3. DIY with an Artificial Pancreas

Dr. Katarina Braune from Charité Hospital in Berlin knows diabetes from every angle. Along with computer scientist and developer Adrian Tappe, Dr. Braune presented a compelling case for an ‘Autopilot for Diabetes,’ which tackles typical frustrations with a patient-centric, proactive approach to diabetes management. Tappe is a developer of AndroidAPS, a free and open-source research tool-kit, which patients can use to build their own closed-loop artificial pancreas system, and control an insulin pump.

Adrian Tappe (L) & Dr. Katarina Braune (R) present why people with diabetes invent DIY solutions for managing the condition. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

Dr. Braune suggests that medical device regulations in the EU need updating in order to keep up with the digital age as well as patient needs. If you understand German, check out her video explaining the project background and full system. For an English-language inspiration, watch Dana Lewis, (founder of OpenAPS) give a compelling talk about texting her artificial pancreas and taking charge of blood glucose monitoring.)

It is aspirational to see this DIY community of digital health innovators who are not waiting around for a solution, who deeply understand diabetes, and who want to apply technology to managing the condition that affects many.

During the Q&A with the audience, a few things became clear:

  • Industry support is a must: You can have the best algorithm around because of a large database, but only by scaling can you bring your diabetes management solution to the market.
  • People with diabetes have different goals: For some people, not having a hypo state (very low blood sugar) is more important than staying in range (of blood glucose levels.) For some, getting through the night without having waking up to address blood sugar levels is the goal.

4. Avoiding Ad-hoc Collaborative Partnerships in Healthcare

Greg Zwisler discusses the Hidden Potential Study and what factors lead to better partnerships in healthcare. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

Switching now from a DIY pancreas to a systemized approach to healthcare partnerships, Greg Zwisler presented some surprising success factors for how organizations approach finding collaboration partners.

He’s been doing some global research in the form of the Hidden Potential Study –including interviews with a cross-section of the healthcare sector in 13 nations– into how these type of healthcare partnerships are formed.

Which turns out to be a very good thing to investigate since apparently, collaborative healthcare partnerships are not well-documented. According to Zwisler, “ no set of success factors appeared recognized or used.”

He brought some preliminary results based on early analysis to the conference. He found that leaders tend to make up their own approach as they go. In the absence of a collaborative partnership ‘checklist’, personal experience and opinions often held sway. Zwisler compares this to entering a construction site without a proper, standard safety helmet.

Zwisler recommends a few tips:

  • Choose prudently: opt for quality of partnerships over quantity.
  • Don’t approach a collaborative partnership like a client meeting; the party with more “power” can benefit itself and the partnership by opting to effectively share that power with its collaborative partners.
  • Corporates are great, but don’t forget about SMEs!

Entrepreneurs out there: Zwisler also has an idea for a startup: “a stock exchange for partnership.”

Zwisler suggests that we are beyond simply patient empowerment and that what is considered the highest value is a direct connection to patients, including so-called citizen patients.

The most successful collaborative partnerships share these attributes: Focus, strong communication, ‘peer-ness’ or shared power, personal chemistry or complementary styles, and open discussion. Stay tuned for more from his study!

5. Digital Health for the Developing World

Polina Hanin from StartUp Health moderated an engaging panel entitled “Digital Health for the Developing World.” Five panelists represented diverse angles which made for an interesting discussion. The topics for the developing world appear a bit removed from the high-tech advances mentioned in the digestible sensors session, and that is just the point: circumstances for implementing innovation differ depending on context.

Polina Hanin from StartUp Health leads a panel on digital health for the developing world. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

According to Frontiers, developing countries need quality health care at lower cost, and would greatly benefit from better prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. This opens up a lot of opportunities to make a big impact.

Certain startups, NGOs, and international organizations, think real-time data can be used to fight epidemics before reaching crisis level. Those living in remote areas are receiving health care, including vaccinations and vital information about disease prevention. But the potential to save lives and improve health is still largely untapped.

Some takeaways on health in less developed regions:

  1. Managing expectations: There’s a growing awareness in the developing world itself of the unevenness of quality-of-care between what they receive and what the developing world receives.
  2. Delivery of diagnostic results, like in the case of HIV-infected babies, needs to happen via SMS and not a slow paper-route which risks dangerous delays in care. Bioinformatics, like using a fingertip or eye scan to track people in the care system, could also be a great help.
  3. Healthcare finances: People tend to postpone care due to expenditure. What about a platform that links payers and individuals in one place?
  4. VisualizenoMalaria’ is a tech stack that uses visualization to figure out where to spray and put nest against malaria-transmitting mosquitos. Attention to movements of water and climate tracking matter here.
  5. National immunization reminders can have a big impact on reducing diseases like measles.

One key issue to keep in mind though is that the lack of Internet-connectivity can hamper some basic innovation. Despite that, the panel suggests keeping the following in mind when developing digital health solutions.

  • Sharing solutions and information with patients, health workforce and back to product developers is key.
  • Person-to-person contact is still the key touchpoint in Subsaharan Africa.
  • Some health centers, like in the Congolese context, are outfitted the same way they were 20 years ago.
  • Interoperability of the solution is key and so is front-loading resources.
  • Innovation starts with questions and listening to your target audience and different sources.
Panel discussion moderated by Polina Hanin from StartUp Health at FH18. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

To convince entrepreneurs to pursue bringing care to remote areas, Skye Gilbert, Deputy Director of Digital Health Solutions at PATH says this:

There are 3 billion people in need of higher quality care. So it makes a difference if you are early and first to add value, save lives, and increase your ROI.

Every dollar invested stretches farther and can be rewarding monetarily but also in how you grow your network and leave your mark on society. You can read more from StartUp Health here.

6. Homework From an Early Investment Panel

Final thoughts from an investment panel on nurturing early stage companies encouraged a little homework from listeners.

Martin Kelly from Health XL moderated the panel on nurturing early-stage investment to accelerate innovation. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

Panelists from Merck Ventures, Johnson & Johnson, and MSD (pictured above,) prompted entrepreneurs to:

  1. Educate yourself about the difference between strategic investors and financial investors. Don’t try to convince investors to pursue new areas.
  2. Be prepared to answer these two questions: Are you solving a problem? What’s your business model?
  3. Ask yourself: If you replace the tech in your solution with another tech, does the whole concept fall apart? (They say tech is usually less than 50% of solutions, but I have some of my own questions on that.)
  4. Well-known tech hubs are a deep pool for talent, but for some specialization, like AI, look to home countries.
  5. Early-stage digital health investment takes time. You have to have the right DNA of the investor and the right investment vehicle.
  6. Regarding pharma, tech will be the answer to more clever medication dosages and personalized treatment. At the moment, “Drugs are currently a very expensive diagnostic.”
  7. Finally, take a birds-eye view; think about global demographics and what’s changing around the world when you are building your idea.

Thanks, and see you again in Berlin soon!

It was a delight to learn from and support Frontiers Health this year. Attending strengthens relationships across the industry and sparks new ideas to pursue in the future. I hope these insights will encourage you to come to Berlin for it in 2019! The networking and discovery are unbeatable. Come check it out for yourself.

Media and press welcome station at FH18. Photo: Frontiers Health 2018

All photos courtesy of Frontiers Health 2018.

If these event impressions resonated for you, feel free to follow me here.



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Elisheva Marcus

Elisheva Marcus


Reporting from within a Venn diagram of health, tech and empowerment. Berlin-based. Internationally minded. Comms @ Earlybird Venture Capital