MEDVIA: paving the way for health innovation

March 13, 2023 Article MEDVIA

There is a lot of money being invested in health innovation in Flanders, yet companies consistently run into the same roadblocks on their path to market. MEDVIA’s mission is to bring people together to address these barriers, and to facilitate the creation of complex collaborations between different members of the ecosystem for truly innovative patient solutions.

By Amy LeBlanc

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Ann Van Gysel (CEO of MEDVIA): “I started out in research, studying molecular biology at Ghent University in the lab of the legendary Belgian plant geneticist Prof. Marc Van Montague. I quickly came to realize that I wanted to have a broader impact in the life sciences than was possible through research in a single field. So when the research institute VIB was founded in the 1990s, I leapt at the opportunity to set up its communications team. While in that position, I worked closely with the VIB spin-offs and biotech startups and started to learn more about the biotech and pharmaceutical industry in Belgium.

“A few years later, I used that newfound knowledge to help establish as the organization’s CEO. It was a natural transition from there to setting up my own consultancy firm, Turnstone Communications, dedicated to providing companies and organizations in the life sciences with support for communications, marketing, and strategy. I also founded BioVox, a non-profit news platform dedicated to showcasing Belgian biotech innovation to an international audience.

“I really see this role as a cumulation of everything I’ve worked towards in my career: the ultimate challenge for widespread and lasting impact in Belgian health innovation.”

“Now, 10 years later, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to further build and shape the Belgian healthtech ecosystem as CEO of the new innovation cluster MEDVIA. I really see this role as a cumulation of everything I’ve worked towards in my career: the ultimate challenge for widespread and lasting impact in Belgian health innovation.”

Q: What is MEDVIA’s role in the ecosystem?

Ann Van Gysel: “MEDVIA (formerly flanders.healthTech) is the newest of seven spearhead clusters in Flanders set up by the government to further the development of domains that are important for the region’s economy. MEDVIA’s specific mission is to improve health innovation by paving the way for progress in biotech, medtech, and digital technologies. We do this by facilitating the creation of complex collaborations that otherwise would be really hard to set up – projects involving multiple players from different parts of the ecosystem, including companies, knowledge centers, universities, and hospitals. We build bridges to bring people together and connect with patient and care organizations, because we know that networking and strategic collaboration is essential for the creating of truly innovative health solutions, but also for lowering barriers and driving change in the sector.

“Once we have everyone around the table, we continue to support these collaborations through funding – every year, we receive about nine million euros from the Flemish government to spend on these innovative health projects. Our aim is for quality and size, not quantity: if the project only involves one company, then they can apply for funding with VLAIO. Our focus in on more complex projects with more partners and a larger scope – projects that likely wouldn’t get off the ground without our organization’s assistance.

“We’re doing everything we can to enable co-creation and push the envelope in this industry for better health innovation.”

“It’s not only about networking and funding though; MEDVIA provides members with additional tools for success, with workshops and a course on internationalization, for example. We also undertake foreign missions, to connect with innovators and partners around the world. We’re doing everything we can to enable co-creation and push the envelope in this industry for better health innovation.”

Q: What are some common challenges that members of this ecosystem are facing?

Ann Van Gysel: “In Flanders, we are lucky that the government invests heavily in health innovation. But companies are still struggling to bring their products to the market. We keep hearing the same three hurdles mentioned over and over by our members: data (and particularly data sharing and reuse), regulatory, and reimbursement issues. These are real barriers preventing companies from growing and innovative solutions from reaching patients.

“It’s clear to me that if people were more open about their struggles, then we could work together to solve them.”

“Although everyone seems to be facing these same challenges, but people aren’t really taking joint action. There seems to be a pervasive idea that ‘we’re the only ones struggling; we must be doing something wrong’ when in fact, these are high-level problems faced by everyone in the sector. It’s clear to me that if people were more open about their struggles, then we could work together to solve them.”

Q: How do you think MEDVIA can help to make a difference?

Ann Van Gysel: “One of the things that distinguishes MEDVIA from other organizations is that we bring different people together at a very early stage of innovation; sometimes even before a project’s trajectory has been defined. The advantage of this is that we have multiple perspectives in the room from the very start, meaning that companies don’t waste time developing a product that patients don’t want to use, or hospitals find difficult to integrate into their workflow. An upfront connection between researchers, patients, and clinicians can also spark new ideas for innovations that may otherwise be left unexplored. By connecting people at a very fundamental level, we’re trying to ensure that health innovations not only benefit companies economically, but also make a real difference to the lives of everyone else in the healthcare sector. This obviously includes patients, but also healthcare workers ­– we aim to improve the system for everyone involved in it.

Read this article about integrating patient perspectives in innovation!

“We are also working together with the different members of the ecosystem to develop a strategic roadmap for the future of health innovation in Flanders. We recently organized a brainstorm with eighty MEDVIA members where we set out to determine: what are we good at; where are we wanting to go; what are the high-level hurdles along the way; and how are we going to solve them. It was a really wonderful day, because everyone was so enthusiastic about sharing ideas; it really demonstrated the willingness that people have to tackle these challenges together!

“We are hosting another event on March 23rd in Leuven called the HealthTech Summit, on the topic of ‘Meeting at the Crossroads of Healthcare Innovation’. The idea is to showcase innovations, but also to build connections and share knowledge, challenges, and solutions. All co-creators will be present: patients, hospitals, government, companies, and researchers. We will be discussing what we’re still lacking in this ecosystem, and how we can build towards it to create a unified voice for the healthtech community.

“Ultimately, this is what I aim to achieve with MEDVIA: to build an organization that helps strengthen our knowledge economy by improving local health innovation, while connecting our ecosystem to the rest of the world. An organization that provides inspiring and strategic leadership to the sector, supporting bottom-up innovation driven by everyone, for everyone.”

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MEDVIA is a spearhead cluster that fosters health innovation by facilitating collaborations between biotech and medtech companies, hospitals, research institutes, and service providers in Flanders and Brussels, providing members with tailored services and funding. Our articles feature MEDVIA members and projects.

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