Q&A with Health 2.0 Cairo founder Omar Shaker: Propping Egypt’s healthtech innovation in a slow industry

We’re a community of around 250 stakeholders and startups, says Health 2.0 Cairo Omar Shaker (Photo courtesy of Health 2.0 Cairo)

Egypt’s market for medical devices is the second largest in the Middle East, according to Oxford Business Group’s Egypt 2018 report, as sales totalled $25 million in 2016, with expectations of further growth. The Ministry of Health and Population is also looking to attract private players to meet the growing demand of a growing population in terms of infrastructure and hospital beds and facilities. The budget for the sector has also increased – but one key pillar in the industry seems to be missing support.

Four years ago, a small amount of people came together thinking about how to support digital health innovation in Egypt. Today, they have a community of 250 industry stakeholders and startups that aim to take healthtech innovation in the country to the next level under the Health 2.0 Cairo chapter.

Health 2.0 is based in San Francisco and aims to promote, showcase and catalyze new technologies in healthcare. The entity does that through their annual flagship event in Santa Clara and through chapters and events in about 100 cities around the world throughout the year.

Business Forward sits down with founder of Health 2.0 Cairo Omar Shaker, who is currently based in San Francisco, to talk about what he does, why he does it and the complexities facing Egypt’s healthtech innovation.

Q: What does Health 2.0 do?
A: The purpose is to support digital health innovation and the idea is to support the innovators and facilitate mentorship and organize events where startups can meet industry leaders. The idea behind the hackathons we run is to gather some of those stakeholders and present what the ideas are. We want to attract people that do not necessarily have a medical background; experts with technology and design backgrounds are also essential to us. The chapters are city-based. We have one in Cairo and one is being established in Alexandria.

The traction was proof that there is a lot of potential there

Why is this essential to Egypt?
I came from the medical world, but realized that I was much more into technology and startups. The path to that was obviously not a straight line. There weren’t any meetups and there wasn’t a place where I could learn about that. That was the main reason behind why I left Egypt and moved to San Francisco: to be immersed in the healthtech world. I first volunteered at the Health 2.0 conference and then I started writing articles for them. After that, I learned about the chapters they have in different cities, so it came very naturally. Additionally, all my friends that graduated from the faculty of medicine and a lot of other people had already started their own innovative startups, but everyone was sitting alone in a room trying to innovate. People had the same obstacles but no one talked to one another.

How did you start the Health 2.0 Cairo chapter?
In 2014, I gathered about 8-10 people who were really passionate about working on healthcare technology startups. We started realizing that there is all this innovation and a lot of cool things happening in Egypt, but there was very little financial or mentoring support. Everyone was super-engaged because they realized that they were suffering from the same obstacles. We interviewed 25 startups in 2015, did a report and realized that marketing and investment are the two biggest problems. In November 2017, we organized an event with several stakeholders and we featured four startups. Then we went on to host Egypt’s first healthtech hackathon in March 2018 and a healthtech meetup under the name Meiosis in August 2018.

There is a lot of liability in healthcare so people tend to shy away

How has the chapter been unfolding?
Between November 2017 and August 2018 a lot has changed. The number of startups and individuals that registered for our events went up twice this year. In the November event, there were about 30 people, and today, we are overbooked. This goes to show where the whole ecosystem is going, not just the Health 2.0 chapter. The traction was proof that there is a lot of potential there. At our first event, we had 12 startups, the second we had 25, in November 2017 we identified 33 and now we have about 60 in our database. In our first hackathon, we had prizes worth LE30,000 and we had 10 new ideas that emerged from the hackathon. We’re a community of around 250 stakeholders and startups. The numbers are something we never anticipated.

What are the complexities startups in Egypt are facing?
One of the biggest complexities is the lack of medical records. They are not digitized so there is very little that we know about the patients that we can retrieve. Additionally, nobody really understands the doctors’ workflow. There is also a lot of liability in healthcare so people tend to shy away because there is a room for error. It is a different kind of mentality.

What have you learned about the local healthtech ecosystem?
We are in a continuous process of identifying the existing startups, knowing more about their needs and building relationships. A quarter of the startups we surveyed at the very beginning were not around anymore a year later. There is a massive drop, so we’re trying to support and get them more involved in what we do. On the other side, you have all these big organizations that are looking for ways to innovate. They have the capital but they do not have the capacity to do that on their own.

How would you describe the utopia of Egypt’s healthtech innovation ecosystem?
The utopian ecosystem would be that startups in the healthcare sector find better avenues to learn quickly about the industry. Healthcare has so many complexities and it is very slow. There are a lot of doctors in Egypt that are defensive in terms of technology. People are trying to do things but they are creating things that are irrelevant to the market because it is very hard to understand and get the chance to sit with doctors and learn about new things. The utopia is a forum where insurance companies, hospitals, startups, government and pharmaceutical companies sit in one room and discuss what the needs and challenges are and have an ongoing form of matchmaking. That is what Health 2.0 is about.

What are Health 2.0 Cairo’s future plans?
Keep doing what we’re doing in terms of mentorship, events and hackathons. The big plan is to position Egypt as the place for healthcare tech in the Middle East and bring the Health 2.0 global community to Egypt, while also helping startups go and connect to the global community.

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