Businesses that save lives

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Finnish health tech innovations are in demand: Exports account for 96 percent of sector output. What makes them so successful?

Population growth and ageing are driving demand for innovative healthcare solutions. Increased accessibility and usability of smart technology makes these innovations available to a growing number of people and healthcare providers across the globe.

According to the European trade association representing the medical imaging, health ICT and electromedical industries (COCIR), the global market for medical equipment is worth 80 billion euros with Europe accounting for some 28 billion euros. The sector has an annual growth rate of five percent and R&D investments represent up to eight percent of sales volume. 

In Finland, the health tech sector has already exceeded telecommunications in size, not to mention an annual growth rate which has averaged 8.5 percent from 2009 to 2014.

“Finland’s particularity in the health tech industry is that more than 96 percent of manufacturing output is exported; one-third to the rest of the EU and the US each, with a growing expansion to the rest of the world. Much less is imported, pushing the trade balance surplus to a total of 829 million euros in 2014. This has a noteworthy impact on the rather sluggish, export-weak national economy,” says Tom Ståhlberg, head of the Finnish health technology association (FiHTA).

Marketing matters

Ståhlberg notes that the common bottleneck in commercializing products has been the lack – or delayed timing – of adequate marketing. Complex medical innovations are difficult to market. The same challenge applies to consumer goods that feature a novel technology or user interface. 

Examples from the health tech sector include mobile applications or smart watches and other wearables that allow monitoring one’s body functions and keep tabs on stress levels, recovery, and sleep.

Michaela Lipkin from the Hanken School of Economics is writing her doctoral thesis on customer experiences and the optimal marketing of wearables.

“The challenge is that even though wearables can measure and produce a lot of data, it is not necessarily easy to interpret this information and make it useful. The company that comes up with a way to make this data smart – as well as simple and fun to use – will emerge as the winner,” she says.

Lipkin recounts that activity bracelets and sports watches have already broken through to the mainstream market, but other wearables, such as smart glasses or smart clothes are harder to adopt.

Health in our own hands

Our eagerness to take on these new applications is part of a larger trend: reclaiming ownership of our own wellbeing. This has created a booming business for consultative laboratories and private companies offering hi-tech medical services

Helsinki-based Nemoy is an example of this new generation. It offers selected treatments for conditions ranging from stress and insomnia to severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), trauma, and autism. 

“We are constantly on the lookout for efficient and safe methods,” says Marja Vihervaara, psychiatrist and founder of the company. According to her, neurotherapy has benefited patients who have “already tried everything else.” 

At the moment, most customers contact Nemoy directly and pay for the therapy themselves. Vihervaara is committed to making these services accessible to more patients, and at an earlier stage of illness.

Nordic health hub

Like any growth sector, the Finnish health tech field is brimming with new innovations and solutions. But it is not just startups getting in on the action.

“Many Finnish companies have been relentlessly marketing their solutions for 40, even 60 years, and have gained global leader positions in chosen niche markets in the medical sector,” says Tom Ståhlberg.

Wallac, established in the 1950s and now part of the global PerkinElmer group, has developed cutting-edge solutions for medical neonatal screening. A second example is hi-tech health technology developer Planmeca whose dental units combine exceptional design with digital dimensions. Another long-term actor Orion Diagnostica offers solutions for health and hygiene diagnostics. 

“What we now need are more middle-size companies alongside the big players and the startups,” says Ståhlberg. In other words, the pressure is on the startups to grow into established players.

In future: Wearables everywhere

Illness prevention
New solutions can identify health impacts and diseases before they are signaled by symptoms. These solutions range from portable meters to smart insulin/medicine patches and toilets acting as minilaboratories.

Optimizing creative work
Devices identify the best possible times for creative, routine, and strategic tasks. These devices can assist in optimizing daily schedules, results and output, making them highly attractive to employers.

Training and support
Realtime assistance – via smart glasses, for example – can be offered in repairing a car, assembling an industrial machine or performing a medical procedure.

Multipurpose tools
Just as mobile phones have become pocket computers, wearables will in the future serve as keys, wallets and even IDs.

Athletics
Wearables will continue to play an increasing role supporting trainers of all levels.

Gaming
Glasses and other gear enabling an augmented reality experience.

Survaillance and safety
Keeping an eye on children or the elderly.

Text by Kati Heikinheimo
Illustrations by Anni-Julia Tuomisto

A longer version of this article was originally published in Finnair's Blue Wings magazine (March 2016).

 

Published March 16, 2016

Category: Collaboration, Economy

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