Piret HIRV: "My everyday task is to create new opportunities for innovations in health and care sector"

21.03.2022 (Caucasian Journal). Health and technology are in the focus of our today’s talk, as they are still very much on the minds of many people across the globe. This is one of inevitable after-effects of the pandemic, which is not yet over. 

What are the healthcare startups about, and how can they help us? How should the state assist them? Estonia is now one of the most digitally advanced nations and world’s leaders in successful startups per capita, so we have invited Ms. Piret HIRV, Head of Health Technology Division and Manager of Connected Health Cluster at Tallinn’s Tehnopol Science Park, to provide her answers and comments.  

▶ ქართულად: Read the Georgian version here.

▶ Հայերեն: 
Read the Armenian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Hello and welcome to Caucasian Journal! First, may I ask you to introduce your organization and your involvement, please?

Piret HIRV: The Connected Health Cluster, led by Tehnopol Science and Business Park, is a platform for co-creation of health technology solutions and their placement on the market. The cluster brings together start-ups, health IT companies, pharma companies, healthcare providers, universities, citizens, patients and other user groups, as well as public authorities to innovate health and care service delivery in Estonia and also cross-border. 

Tallinn Science Park Tehnopol is the largest self-sustainable science and business park in the Baltics, facilitating more than 350 technology companies. Its business development and incubation services for growth-oriented companies are branded as Startup Incubator, which has been operational since 2003 and worked with 240 companies to reach a desirable investment phase. The campus facilitates Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) and IT College with more than 14 000 students and 3000 researchers nearby, providing a suitable environment to bring breakthrough business ideas into life. 

As the manager of the Connected Health Cluster and the health division in Tehnopol, my everyday task is to create new opportunities for innovative solutions in the health and care sector, facilitating new opportunities for testing technological solutions in healthcare, building a diverse network of ~50 stakeholders between the government, hospitals/doctors, academics, startups, bigger IT companies. In short, my expertise in connecting health policy decisions with the design and development of national digital services is what is needed to bring qualitative, efficient healthcare services to everyone. I also used to work for the Ministry of Social Affairs here in Estonia. 

 We have a lot of supernatural engineers and other professionals who are willing to spend more than eight hours a day to make their dream come true.

Since autumn 2021, I am studying at Tartu University to get a Ph.D. in Gene Technology. I believe that personal health and genome data could be used to make a change in the healthcare system. Thus, my focus is on employing one's health and genome data in health-related decisions, the impact of national and international strategies, legislation and other factors on a person’s ability to manage and share their personal health data.

AK: Why, in your view, is Estonia so successful in startups? How would you list the factors of Estonia’s vivid progress in startups and innovations, which led to becoming the leader in number of "Unicorns" per capita? [a "Unicorn" is a startup company with a value of over $1 billion].

PH: There are more than 1,200 start-ups in Estonia - that is a lot for a small country. On a global scale, we have more start-ups per 100,000 inhabitants than in most other countries around the world. And not only are there many, they are also successful. There are several reasons for this: 
  • Firstly, it is very easy to set up a business in Estonia - everything can be done digitally and it takes a maximum of 15 minutes. 
  • Secondly, we have a lot of supernatural engineers and other professionals who are willing to spend more than eight hours a day to make their dream come true. 
  • Thirdly, we also need to think in order not to get caught up in a comfortable home market, but to expand rapidly around the world. 
Powerful success stories of Estonian start-ups, such as Bolt and Pipedrive, also directly affect the growth of new start-ups: If new entrants see that it is possible to grow multi-billion-dollar companies from here, it will also inspire them to operate. 

The Tehnopol Startup Incubator program is the first step in the journey of many start-ups, which ensures that you are moving in the right direction with the help of experienced players and that you can reach the market quickly with your product. 

AK: Do you have any "favourite" Estonian startups and innovation stories?

PH: There are many successful solutions launched in the Estonian health technology field, and all of them deserve credit for outstanding work, therefore I will bring a few examples of prosperous solutions.  

TriumfHealth as a solution that focuses on the mental well-being of children is certainly worth highlighting. Recent years have also been difficult for children, and caring for mental health has been a strong discussion topic. Triumf’s solution offers support for the child through a gamification approach – using health games on smart devices. They have included also the support function for children undergoing cancer treatment. Some games are intended for all children, helping to avoid harmful habits and to make healthier choices (Triumf Saga), and there is also a game created to cope with chronic conditions (Triumf Hero).

I would also like to highlight Migrevention – it is the ambition of the young company to create the world’s first fully digital headache clinic that would enable treatment of a migraine without leaving home. The patient app comprises a headache diary for daily use (the paid version comes complete with counselling by a headache nurse) as well as a multidisciplinary treatment module based on evidence-based treatment and managed and monitored from the dashboard by a specialist. In addition to counselling by a nurse, the treatment module also includes a module for physiotherapy and cognitive-behavioural therapy, options for patient testing and active treatment-based intervention through audio and video tools. They have recently launched their second clinical trial and are swiftly moving towards their goal.

As a lot of developments are based on SaaS (Software as a service) , so I would like to highlight an innovative medical product – TempID.  This company has developed a smart thermometer that can be attached to the body which measures and monitors body temperature. The thermometer is connected with an app, and the users can analyze and log their temperature readings and, in future, communicate directly with their care provider. The goal is to make body temperature measurements more efficient and save resources, e.g. in hospitals in terms of personnel time and task management, and also to provide comfort to the individual user, such as parents of small children. 

Another interesting startup – Dermtest. So there are many interesting examples to share from our Cluster.

 Healthcare as a field has a long history of being conservative and reluctant to rapid change.

AK:  How would you characterize the importance of state support and education, in your field? 

PH: As Estonia is an advanced digital society, we have the privilege to offer different services on a regional level and expand them beyond the regional borders. To make this happen, it is important to have the goals and actions represented on a state level, which is why Connected Health in its activities is working closely with public sector representatives. It is necessary to work together with all of the stakeholders in healthcare (and other fields), in order to create innovation at all levels and bring the new technologies to every citizen. 

The state has an important role in strategizing the implementation and integration processes of novel health technologies to the healthcare system. Healthcare as a field has a long history of being conservative and reluctant to rapid change, i.e., implementing and integrating new, foreign healthcare services and products. To strive for effective improvement within the health system, it is necessary for state entities to create a framework and appropriate infrastructure for the changes to take place. 

For that there have been created different development plans for the healthcare system – whether it is the National Health Plan on a larger scale, providing a comprehensive overview of the previous period and actions for the next period of implementation; or is it the eHealth Strategic Development plan, of which a new version is currently in the making, which process is led by the Ministry of Social Affairs. 

The principles of co-creation matter in the state level of health system organization as well – through cross-sectoral co-operation it is possible to identify and map the needs of the health system and create a development network accordingly.

The state as public sector has the best possibilities to create the conditions for the implementation of innovative solutions. It has the power to call to action the solution providers and also to create the legislation according to the needs of and offers to the system on a national level. 

One example of how Estonia calls for new solutions from the public sector point of view is the Digital Testbed Framework. The latter is a new and innovative collaboration model, aimed to give the solution developers access to the government’s tech stack, in order to develop innovative products or services and get proof of concept. Similar smaller initiatives are in place in different state entities, as they have proven to be successful in the past.

AK:  Are you prepared to share Estonian know-how with other countries? 

PH: Connected Health is a part of different international networks, and we are constantly working together with ecosystems around the world. We represent the cluster, its members and the Estonian health technology landscape in different health-related events and exhibitions, such as recently at Dubai Expo2020. It is our goal to connect with other stakeholders in different regions, share best practices and introduce our solutions, as innovation in healthcare strives from co-operation. 

AK: Thank you very much!

Read the Georgian language version here.  Read the Armenian language version here

Caucasian Journal appreciates kind support of Estonian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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