Amsterdam: a resilient city

“Amsterdam has always been a city of resilience,” says Matt Clancy, COO of InBiome, a young company at the forefront of bacterial diagnostics. “And the last few months have only highlighted the life science and health sector’s strong network and ability to innovate and adapt.” Indeed, the local ecosystem has gone from strength to strength in recent years. In 2019, the city saw the arrival of the main regulatory body European Medicines Agency (EMA), as well as a continual stream of investments into local companies such as Aidence.

With two state-of-the-art university hospitals, an extensive array of public-private partnerships and a heady mix of global pharma players and MedTech startups, the city’s scene is only growing in international stature – particularly when it comes to applying data science and AI in clinical settings. “There’s also strong support from the government,” says Clancy. “Local organisations, such as the Amsterdam Economic Board and Smart Health Amsterdam, provide advice and actively put like-minded individuals in touch with one another.”

Accelerating the shift toward digital care

With the arrival of the coronavirus (COVID-19), there was an accelerated shift towards the digitising of healthcare. As a young and fast-growing eHealth company specialising in remote care, Caro Health was able to quickly adapt to meet the needs of the moment.

“When we were confronted with COVID-19, we quickly realised that we are in a unique position to support affected patients and help urgent care units and GP practices with our product,” says cofounder Thomas Goijarts. “In just a few days, we launched a COVID-19 recovery programme in collaboration with one of our existing clients, a Belgian hospital.”

Man using Happitech app

Happitech's tech helps people monitor their heart rate

In a similar vein, Happitech’s heart monitoring technology, which uses a mobile phone camera with no add-ons, was recently made part of a remote heart-monitoring app developed by Amsterdam’s OLVG hospital and medical app developers Luscii. Since heart patients could no longer visit the hospital during the height of the crisis, this app could enable them to be monitored from home. “It was amazing how quickly it came together.”  

Harb has witnessed an explosion of innovation across the life sciences and health industry over the past few months. “I’ve talked to all these industry insiders who are saying they’ve seen acceleration over the last few months that they haven’t seen in the last five years,” he says. “Certainly, many of the telehealth solutions already existed. But now there’s a real reason, as grave as it is, to adopt them. Suddenly, everyone is more open-minded.”

Telemedicine arrives ahead of schedule

“One thing is clear: telemedicine is here to stay – everyone likes it a lot,” says Dr Philip Scheltens, the founder and director of the Alzheimer’s Centre Amsterdam, a healthcare and research institute. “Telemedicine would have happened anyway over the next decade. But we’ve had the incentive to make it happen now.”

“It works great for the patient,” he explains. “Using video conferencing, we go over their chart together. Spouses and children can join in, and we all have a nice conversation about what matters. It’s actually quite intimate. Plus, most calls save at least a couple of hours in travel time.”

Dr Philip Scheltens

Dr Philip Scheltens

To weather the current situation, Scheltens thinks it’s necessary to provide the benefits of larger gatherings in online spaces. “We actually have more collaborations and alliances outside the Netherlands than inside – and that’s largely thanks to congresses and conferences. You get to hear someone talk who [has] similar ideas. You have a chat and decide to work together. So, these kinds of events are always very fruitful. Now, we must see if we can recreate these benefits in more virtual ways.”

Creating new partnerships and networks during a crisis

With universities closing and hospitals focused on managing the pandemic, many collaborative research projects have been suspended. “Our sector is built on private-public partnerships. Revenue has obviously been impacted,” says Clancy from InBiome.

“But knowing that everyone was in the same situation, we made an active decision to identify and reach out to companies and individuals that we wanted to meet anyway at congresses and events. It was very effective! Everyone’s normal routine had been somewhat paused and there was genuine interest in how we had pivoted our expertise to tackle the coronavirus,” says Clancy.

“We’ve now built strong relationships with some new and valuable partners. In many ways, it shows the sector at its best. Academic research institutions are providing amazing subject expertise and pulling together the research questions, consortiums and funding proposals required to make things happen. At the same time, private companies are turning all their efforts and expertise to something driven by the public good.”

A caring, colloborative life science community

Though the crisis has impacted everyone personally and professionally, members of Amsterdam’s life sciences and health community aren’t lacking optimism. In some ways, the situation has brought out the best in people. “The ecosystem is really growing,” affirms Goijarts of Caro Health. “And I think it's great to see that companies are truly helping each other out – in the form of advice, mentoring and/or partnerships.”

“Amsterdam was just named by an international benchmark as the best startup ecosystem in Europe after the UK and Sweden. I still believe that in the next few years, we will continue to rise and become number one.” 

Read more about Amsterdam’s life sciences and health sector.