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Challenges and Startups of the Healthcare Sector

By Nour Ibrahim

“As an industry, are we courageous enough? Sometimes no, because we’re too frightened to fail,” said Sanofi’s Head of Africa Jon Fairest at a roundtable discussion on healthcare innovation and entrepreneurship in Egypt and Africa.

The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation hosted the discussion where Fairest discussed with entrepreneurs and professionals from the healthcare sector the industry’s top challenges and the opportunities for startups.

Fairest said that the healthcare sector in Africa faces enormous economic, environmental and funding challenges.


“If you look at the size of the population, it’s huge. I think what is interesting is the age group, you know, 50 percent are still under the age of 25 so the real - I would say - millennial generation of people have different expectations but they also have different health challenges,” he said.

The challenges for patients may start at the diagnosis phase.

“There is a huge part of the population that don’t have even access to some of the most basic discussions with a healthcare professional even, before we even get to treatment,” said Fairest.

This is a problem that entrepreneurs like Amir Kalila, who attended the roundtable discussion, started to notice and tried to improve.

"We started out a couple of years ago. We had a mission to give as many people as possible access to reliable, proper healthcare with the proper tools that they need and to make sure that it’s affordable and sustainable,” said Kalila.


 Kalila’s venture, InfoMed, provides a platform that facilitates a variety of healthcare-related matters from finding the right doctor to booking an appointment.


 Like other startups in the field, InfoMed employs modern technology to improve the quality of the available healthcare services.

According to Fairest, early diagnosis can be especially challenging.

“The problem with something like diabetes in an emerging market is: the only time when you find out a patient has got diabetes is probably when they have their first heart attack or they have their first stroke or they’re going blind or they turn for an amputation,” he said.


Fairest added that when diseases are diagnosed early and managed well, cost-effectiveness is achieved which allows more funds to be spent on other matters like research and trials.


Another challenge that Fairest suggested could be overcome with the help of technology was financial exclusion.


“If you have a smartphone, you are actually financially included because you can use this to pay for things even if you don’t have a bank account or you don’t have any cash in your pocket. I can put credit on this smartphone to pay for healthcare,” he said.


In addition, mobile phones and applications are now used to empower patients and fill the gaps that traditional companies are unable to fill. One application that contributes to this gap and makes drug-ordering easier for patients is Roshetta which connects patients to the nearest pharmacy, allows them to order their prescribed medicine and helps them find missing drugs.


However, Fairest admitted that even with patient empowerment, health education remained difficult. He added that this was especially noticeable in the disparity between the quality of healthcare services available in major cities and those in rural areas.


“If you go more remotely, you’ll find a lot of patients have very little education, the healthcare professionals have very little knowledge, they want more knowledge and they want more education but it’s difficult to reach them,” he said.


Another startup that contributes to the healthcare sector and attempts to serve remote patients is Rology. The on-demand teleradiology platform tries to solve the delay in reporting and shortage in the number of radiologists as well as the misutilization of the existing ones. In an attempt to reach remote and uninsured patients, half of the hospitals Rology currently works with are public and one of them is in Upper Egypt.


As much as similar challenges have posed exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs, there are also obstacles to starting new businesses in the healthcare sector.


“We are in an industry that is probably scrutinized more than any other industry on the planet,” said Fairest. He added that things like compliances, patient data and privacy constantly challenged the industry’s players.


However, Fairest said that big organizations, like Sanofi, were trying to move towards partnerships that would bring more innovation and creative ideation to the whole healthcare industry beyond medicine manufacturing.

“Failure is equally important as success because we have to try and learn,” Fairest said about taking risks and experimenting with ideas.

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AUC launched AUC Venture Lab (V-Lab) in 2013 which is the first university-based incubator in Egypt. It incubates early-stage and growth-stage startups that are chosen through a selection process that judges the novelty of the idea, the team’s track record and cohesion, scalability and potential for commercialization, as well as the team’s tenacity and commitment to success. Once selected, the startups benefit from training sessions, mentors, student internships and their presence at the AUC School of Business. They also play an active role in the AUC community and Egypt, sharing their entrepreneurial experience with students, faculty members, mentors and investors, as well as a global alumni network.