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Surviving and thriving: how digital HealthTech startups in China have created opportunity from the Covid-19 crisis

Surviving and thriving: how digital HealthTech startups in China have created opportunity from the Covid-19 crisis

The gambling continues… A group of people engage in gambling activies in a public park in Macau, China amid the Covid-19 virus crisis. (Source: unsplash.com)
By Michael Baxter


Four China digital health startups are not merely surviving the Covid-19 crisis, they are thriving.

“Out of adversity comes opportunity,” or so Benjamin Franklin once said. The current Coronavirus crisis is tragic and that should never be forgotten. It is also accelerating a shift towards digital working practices and communications and for that reason, it is also a qualified opportunity. At least Covid-19 has become an opportunity for digital Healthtech startups.

The shift to digital

Resistance to change is one of the most human of traits. Change is difficult. Many of us avoid it. The Covid-19 crisis is forcing us to change. We simply must adapt. And once we have made that change going back to how things used to be won’t be so easy.

It’s like jumping in the deep end of a swimming pool. Once we have become used to it, and learn to appreciate it, will we want to spend so much time at the shallow end? We are having to adopt digital practices and once we do, when things return to normal, we may well hold on to these practices, post Covid-19 normal may look quite new.

But agile organisations often see this as a unique chance to help accelerate this shift.

“I was in the Czech Republic,” said Jan Velich, co-founder of The CareVoice (康语), recalling the day he first learned about a new virus in China. Of his fellow co-founders, one was skiing in Japan, the other in California. And they were not sure how to react, the temptation was to stay with their families. Yet, they agreed to fly into Hong Kong to support the office there. This was against the advice at the time, but they all saw the need to be as close to the epicentre of the crisis that was beginning to emerge.

The day that the news of Covid-19 began to spread it was just before the Chinese New Year vacation period. It was a time of uncertainty and considerable nervousness.

“I was a “bit scared,” but also saw “big change and opportunities,” said Hailiang Shi, founder of LIVE2LIFE , describing his emotions on the day he first heard about the crisis in making.

I knew it was bad, but didn’t realise how bad,” said Stanley Li, founder of DXY (丁香园), a leading digital healthcare company operating in China. Yet by January 20th he had built an emergency team. The company also launched a disease tracker in 24 hours!

Charles Bark is the founder of HINounou, a company which responded to the crisis by supplying a Covid-19 emergency pack, initially consisting of a mask and sanitising gel, and later included monitoring technology. He said, “We realised Covid-19 was a game changer.”

The forced change

DXY is not strictly speaking a startup, it was founded in the year 2000. Even so, its response to Covid-19 has all the hallmarks of a lean startup. Before the crisis, its technology facilitated an online healthcare community. That community is now engaged in the fight against Covid-19. Earlier on, doctors from Wuhan used some of their precious spare time to shoot videos and prepare presentations demonstrating their own experiences and lessons learned from the crisis to doctors across China.

Now things have moved on, that expertise is being used to support doctors around the world. For example, DXY has found volunteers to translate some of the videos spoken in Chinese into English and then other volunteers to translate the English into Persian. That way they were able to show videos of Chinese doctors with subtitles in Iran. Then, any questions were translated into English, then into Chinese and then the reverse process occurred as the answers were fed back to the Iranian doctors.

So that is one clear example: using digital to share experiences so that medics around the world can learn from each other.

LIVE2LIFE is a telemedicine company. “Around ten years ago,” said Shi, before the company had been founded, “we had a partner who wanted a tele ICU solution, so that the head of ICU at a hospital, was able to monitor beds remotely. Among other services, LIVE2LIFE is now looking at a remote ICU solution, so that an expert can monitor many units from a distance.

Is there any going back from that? Covid-19 forced hospitals to adopt telemedicine, but when the crisis is over, it is unlikely that they will completely reverse back to what it used to be like.

HiNounou has links with China and France. They have a 6.30 call with French clients every day and so far, have shipped one million kits.

TheCareVoice works with insurance companies, providing a software as a service (SaaS) service to help insurers digitise their health insurance and their customers experience. “Q1 was one of our strongest quarters” says Velich. He adds: “You need to focus on existing customers, being able to grow the business with them is important.” No doubt, their customers have never had an experience like this one.

How to survive and thrive

“One of our shareholders,” said Velich, told him “that you have to be like a cockroach, you have to prepare for the worst.”

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From one point of view, the cockroach is the pinnacle of evolution’s achievement — a near indestructible creature that can survive most of what nature or humanity throws at it.

Then again, as Darwin is reported to have said: “It is not the strongest of a species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Investors

But what about the investment community, do they sign up to the idea of Covid-19 creating opportunity for digital healthtech startups?

Stanley Li put it well: “Investors [are often] long-term’ists, they don’t expect a short-term return, they are patient.”

Or as Charles Bark said: “Business people in France, considering the extreme situation, came to us and said they wanted to open a branch of HiNounou in France and invest in that. We were not prepared for that at this stage, this was more of a medium-term plan. Now we are opening a branch encouraged by those investors. This will not disappear with the end of Covid-19, telemedicine, online digital services will be booming after. And we will be ready!”

They say that in times of crisis capital flies towards quality. Investors understand the adversity created by this crisis, but the savvy ones also understand it creates opportunity. For digital health startups, the Covid-19 crisis is without doubt an opportunity.


Galen Growth, the digital health intelligence and analytics global leader, is hosting its Together Apart HealthTech CEO Survival Strategies Series throughout April. May and June 2020. For further information and details on the next webinar, please our Events webpage.

Michael Baxter is a technology and economics writer. The Group Editor at the Data Protection World Forum, his forthcoming book, co-written with Julien De Salaberry, Living in the Age of Jerk, explores how rapidly changing technology is set to transform the economy, society and even humanity. 

© 2020 Galen Growth Asia Pte Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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