Ecosystem partner

Dec 21, 2017

How to make the ecosystem your strongest innovation partner

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

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Rocco van der Berg

Rocco van den Berg

Innovation Lead at Philips Ventures

Rocco van den Berg has 20 years of experience in digital business development, corporate venture and start-up collaborations.

We all have different stories that bring us to where we are now. Mine started when I was 10 and my grandfather died of cancer. I was heartbroken and desperate to prevent it from happening to others. It’s why I chose a career in medical biology and also why I became frustrated by how long it takes to make changes in the healthcare industry.


I worked with media, financial and tech ventures, which taught me one golden lesson: that the key to fast-paced and lean innovation is to know how to tap into the ecosystem to validate your solution. When my heart pulled me back to healthcare, I brought that lesson with me.


Fast-forward to the end of November 2017, when I proudly watched five start-ups in the area of fertility, pregnancy and parenting pitch their solutions to a room of clinicians, investors, insurers and business leaders. These young companies were taking part in Breakthrough Day, the culmination of three months of hard work in the Start-up Program at Philips HealthWorks, where I work as an innovation lead.


My goal throughout has been to try to connect each team with the right contacts in the ecosystem at the right times to help them keep moving in the right direction. Here are some of the approaches I took.


Explore a healthcare system


One great way of understanding the complex healthcare world is to visit specific hospitals. Often, when I first meet start-ups, the teams have already validated their great ideas with doctors; but they tend not to validate their assumptions and solutions with other key stakeholders such as insurers, payers, hospital procurement or patients.


As part of the HealthWorks program, we took the teams to three hospitals — Maxima Medical Center, University Medical Center Utrecht and the Elisabeth-TweeSteden Hospital — where they met specialist nurses, heads of procurement, neonatologists, urologists, gynecologists and senior executives. Having conversations with different stakeholders helped them to pinpoint the person with the buying power, made sure they understood how to fit into the workflow of a hospital and helped ensure that they were addressing a real customer pain point.


For example, New Born Solutions — one of the companies in the Start-up Program in Eindhoven — is in the process of developing a rapid non-invasive test for meningitis in babies. Currently, hospitals perform that test via a lumbar puncture, which is painful for the child and distressing for parents and nurses. The team initially thought that the main selling point of their solution was that it avoids serious discomfort. But when they talked to heads of the neonatology departments and the value committees of these hospitals, they found that because meningitis rates are dropping, health systems need to find ways to test faster and more easily in order to catch the few that have it. So suddenly, New Born Solutions is telling a very different story thanks to speaking directly to their potential customers.

Start-up innovators participating in Philips Healthworks Breakthrough Day watch a presentation

Tap into the expert network


I find that healthcare experts are happy to connect others in a network where they can. For the Start-up Program, I helped to build an active group of 70 thought leaders and healthcare innovators in the fertility, pregnancy and neonatology domain from across Europe. This group now includes the association of midwives in Germany, heads of neonatology across Europe, gynecologists, but also vitally important people such as board members of hospitals and procurement officers.


We would update the network regularly on what each team has achieved, adding a request from each start-up related to a key business goal, such as: “Help us to connect to commercial clinical microbiologists to validate the workflow and business drivers of sepsis diagnosis” or “Help us to find an expert in neonatal intensive care in the EU to help us understand how they are reimbursed.”Each time we sent one out, I’d get calls and emails the next day from different contacts saying they’d like to help or that they know someone the start-ups should talk to. It’s an awesome moment.


Double-check your main customer


The ecosystem can also help teams to make sure they know who their main customers are, because it might not always be hospitals or clinicians. As Alberto Prado – Head of Philips HealthWorks – mentioned in his blog describing four ways to avoid failing at the first hurdle: “It’s vital that start-ups understand how they fit into the connected healthcare system they are targeting whilst ensuring scalability to other markets. This can mean working out the difference between who uses the innovation, who benefits from it, who pays for it, how much they pay and why.”


One of the companies in our Start-up Program, Noscendo, is developing a way to test for the infection microbe causing sepsis, which is a condition that affects millions of people each year. Many patients sadly die, while others are left severely disabled. A test that enables hospitals to detect and treat sepsis early would not only potentially save lives, but also save costs for entire healthcare systems. That means that health insurers might eventually be an even bigger supporter and customer of this solution than hospitals.


So to my point earlier, the end user isn’t always the main decision maker either.


Another start-up I worked with, called YO Sperm test, has developed a home test kit for men to determine their fertility potential and advertised it in a manly way: “check your swimmers!” Despite already being on the market with their FDA-approved solution, sales were not what they had anticipated. During the program, the team interviewed a large number of couples who wanted to get pregnant and they found out that when it comes to buying sperm tests, women are actually the key decision makers. They are in the process of changing their messaging and look and feel to become more female and couple-friendly. Already they are experiencing an increase in online conversion and sales rates.


Make the network your long-term partner


One thing I learned from working with start-ups across a range of industries is that everyone in the ecosystem wants to innovate, but we each struggle for different reasons. Large companies can find it challenging to be agile and have to deal with legacy; start-ups may lack powerful connections or resources and risk running out of money too soon; healthcare professionals rarely have extra time beyond their most important job: caring for patients.


I strongly believe that we learn best when we place ourselves on the same level as each other. Sharing ideas and ambitions means together you push through the obstacles much faster. It’s what drives me to find new ways to connect start-ups to the ecosystem beyond our Start-up Program too. Even though Breakthrough Day is over, my work continues; I’m in continuous conversations with Philips departments, hospitals, investors and the start-ups to define and build new collaboration models that would create new value for all. If we want to disrupt healthcare, there is no way one company can do it by themselves. We need to search, together, for new collaborative solutions.

Smiling innovators at Breakthrough Day pose for the camera holding signs with hashtags — “#PhilipsHealthworks” and “#BTday.”

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