Menu

DIGITAL HEALTH

Whether focused on prevention, diagnosis, treatment compliance, or efficiency – websites, apps, blogs, and online forums are playing an increasingly important role in medical care. The Merck Innovation Center promotes start-ups that have fresh ideas on digitalizing healthcare.

The Internet has an answer to every question, including health-related ones. Thanks to Wikipedia, blogs, and forums, patients these days are well informed and expect their treating physicians to interact with them as equal partners. “In principle, I think this is a very positive development. Many patients go online to research the potential causes of their symptoms before even consulting their doctor. Their con­jecture is sometimes correct, but their research can naturally lead to incorrect assumptions as well,” says Stephanie Brockötter, a general practitioner based in Nordwalde, Germany. One thing is certain, though: Digitalization is making it easier for people to learn about symptoms and treatments. In addition, an increasing number of mobile apps are focusing on digital health. For instance, they can remind patients to take their medication, document health data and provide nutritional advice. “Digital health is a market with massive potential. More than anyone else, small start-ups are driving this dynamic development, and we intend to support these companies through our Accelerator program,” says Michael Gamber, Head of the Merck Innovation Center.

Brian Gitta
Founder of thinkIT, a start-up

“We were given the freedom necessary to develop our idea into a viable business.”

Diagnosing malaria with a smartphone app

Brian Gitta is one of the start-up founders who has benefited from the Accelerator. Together with his colleagues, this young man from Kampala (Uganda) has developed an app that allows patients to be tested for malaria without drawing blood. The idea was inspired by his personal medical history. “As a computer science student, I suffered from an illness that meant I had to get three injections a day. When I then also began showing symptoms of malaria, I wasn’t in the mood to get stuck by yet another needle,” Gitta recalls. The standard method of diagnosing malaria is to draw multiple blood samples. Gitta began researching less unpleasant ways to detect the disease. But much more importantly, if malaria is identified early, it can be treated with medicine. However, this dangerous disease can only be diagnosed using the facilities of a medical clinic, which many communities in Africa lack. Gitta believes this is why many illnesses are detected too late. “I discovered that light sensors can be used to read the blood’s oxygen content through the skin, and I wondered whether it would be possible to detect malaria this way as well,” says Gitta. Working with several fellow students, he developed a prototype finger scanner that can be connected to a smartphone. This device uses infrared sensors to scan red blood cells for malaria protozoa. Diagnosis results appear on the smartphone screen after mere minutes. This procedure is not only completely pain-free, but is also much faster, less expensive and more accessible than conventional methods. The team named the finger scanner “Matibabu”, which means “medical clinic” in Swahili, and then founded the start-up thinkIT. Through Merck’s Accelerator program, the young entrepreneurs worked at the Innovation Center in Darmstadt to further hone their creation. ‟We were given the freedom necessary to develop our idea into a viable business. In discussions with experts from other fields, we considered, for instance, how our technology could also be used to diagnose other diseases,″ says Gitta, pointing out a benefit of the program.

A finger scanner, which is connected to a smartphone, makes it possible to diagnose ­malaria.

“I discovered that light sensors can be used to read the blood’s oxygen content through the skin and I wondered whetherit would be possible to detect malaria this way as well.”

Brian Gitta
Founder of thinkIT, a start-up

Shorter waiting times

The idea developed by Israeli start-up Check-ER takes a completely different approach. This company likewise spent three months at the Innovation Center in Darmstadt, working on an app that shows users in need of emergency care when and where to seek treatment. The app has a symptom checker. Based on the user’s personal symptoms, the app provides a recommendation for the best entry point into the healthcare system – from an emergency room to a doctor, urgent care, or even telemedicine. The app is connected to the hospital administration systems and estimates waiting times based on the patients already waiting as well as the urgency of the symptoms. “Check-ER can be used to avoid overcrowded emergency rooms and delays in hospital treatment, which improves patient satisfaction as well as quality of care,” says co-founder Rachel Bodkier. In collaboration with the second largest private hospital chain in France, Check-ER is testing the app in 25 hospitals.

Start-up company Check-ER has developed an app that estimates emergency room waiting times, among other things.

Marketplace for pharmacies

As Germany’s first pharmacy marketplace, Apoly allows patients to purchase over-the-counter medicines via an online platform. This start-up connects customers to local pharmacies via the Internet. The online platform features a tool that helps users self-diagnose based on their symptoms, after which it recommends the appropriate medicine. They can input customer-specific information such as allergies, which the tool takes into consideration when suggesting a product. Orders are forwarded to the nearest partner pharmacy, which generally offers same-day delivery. In return, Apoly receives a transaction fee from the pharmacies. “Through the Accelerator program, we received support from mentors and coaches that enabled us to review our hypotheses and devise new strategies – that was a really big help,” says co-founder Luca Christel. The start-up, located in Leipzig, Germany, is already offering its service in major German cities.

Apoly allows patients to purchase over-the-counter medicines via an online platform.

Maisha Meds of Kenya offers pharmacies an app to manage their inventory.

Online inventory

In February 2016, our Accelerator program expanded to Nairobi, Kenya, where we’ve been exclusively supporting start-ups in the field of digital health. Take for instance Maisha Meds, one of the companies we have funded. This start-up offers an inexpensive, easy-to-use app that enables small, private pharmacies in rural regions of Kenya to manage their inventory. Many pharmacies in Africa are still working with pen and paper, which makes it hard to keep track of inventory and causes information to get lost. With the app from Maisha Meds, pharmacies have an easy way to digitally manage their inventory and source medicines. In addition to this, they can also use a mobile payment system to stay in better contact with customers, informing them of special offers via SMS. Thanks to our Accelerator, this start-up has made many strategically important contacts.

“Digital health is a market with massive potential. More than anyone else, small start-ups are driving this dynamic development, and we intend to support these companies through our Accelerator program.

Michael Gamber,
Head of the Merck Innovation Center

Promoting good ideas

Our Accelerator actively cultivates the innovative spirit of young companies in healthcare, life science and performance materials, especially those focusing on digital solutions. In Darmstadt, this three-month program offers select start-ups up to € 50,000 in funding, regular coaching sessions and workshops, and space at the Merck Innovation Center. In February 2016, we expanded our Accelerator program to Nairobi, Kenya, opening our first Accelerator site outside of Germany. The program there, also three months long, focuses on digital health start-ups. Besides co-working space, a curriculum and access to mentors, companies also receive up to US$ 30,000 in funding. A major component of the Accelerator is the opportunity for young innovators to network and share expertise to the benefit of all involved. The program features experts from Merck sites worldwide along with external experts from the spheres of business, science and society.
We intend to expand our Accelerator program into a global platform so that people can turn good ideas into reality regardless of where they are.