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DIY blood tests, a Viagra detector and “Airbnb for labs” – why Germany’s most exciting startups may be in health tech



"What type of biomarkers – peptides, RNA...?" Not a typical question at a startup event but this isn't a typical startup. BloodApp, dreamed up by a molecular biologist turned entrepreneur, is a smartphone-enabled home blood-test kit, about to start clinical trials. Prick a finger, put a sample into a little white box and get results for cell-related tests.

The concept was one of over a dozen pitched last night at Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals' headquarters in Berlin. The event showcased the winners of the health industry giant's new scheme Grants4Apps, which is expected to give out between €5000 and €10,000 to each of 23 teams this year.

Judging by the number of senior team members in the crowd last night, there's genuine interest in seeing what third-party entrepreneurs and researchers can come up with. "There's so much knowledge out there that we don't have as a company," Bayer HealthCare's Head of Development Dr Kemal Malik said during his keynote speech.

In other words: scientists at large organisations invent drugs and map genomes; it's up for grabs who builds the tools to remind people to actually take their pills. The same goes for figuring out new ways to use the world's "big mess" of health data.

Apps, pills and lab gear

Pills and genomes both featured last night. PhotonIQ Technologies' Dr Stefan Hoffmann pitched TraceKey, an app that could run size and colour analysis on smartphone photos to detect fake pills. Right now, the company's running a trial to spot fake Viagra, apparently the "most faked drug out there right now". 

OpenSNP – named for a DNA base pair sequence – is an open platform for genetic testing, designed as an alternative to closed private companies such as 23AndMe. Members of the public get access to medical research in exchange for use of their anonymised data; researchers get access to genetic results to aid new discoveries.

Another young company, Researchcluster, wants to help researchers keep track of their lab equipment and share it with others. It's like an "Airbnb for labs", as the moderator put it, though it could just as easily be used within a single organisation with multiple labs. It is expected to launch in public beta this year.

Menthal Dopa – led by a University of Bonn student – is developing a way to use smartphone lockscreens and sensors to monitor the symptoms of Parkinson’s diseases.

Most of these teams will take a while to arrive at fully-baked products. After selection and signing a contract, the teams get a few months to develop their apps and must present their work to a Bayer HealthCare and Bayer Business Services evaluation panel before receiving the funds.

We weren't able to check the fine print of the contract but organiser Dr Jesus del Valle assured us there are no strings attached. "This mechanism shall ensure that applicants just come up with ideas with a certain degree of maturity," he said. "Essentially the applicants get sponsored for their work. Only after we see what they did, they receive the grant."

Finding funding for health tech startups in Europe

Once grants are granted and business models are ready, will the teams who need it find further investment? The 2012 EVCA Yearbook results are encouraging. Last year, more life science companies received funding than nearly any other sector in Europe. One challenge: health tech companies tend to need a "longer breath" of first-round funding – as one grant winner put it – to get them past regulations and clinical trials.

A number of specialist startup programmes are starting to pop up in Europe – Healthbox is now active in London, Startupbootcamp ran a Health Global Gathering in Dublin in May and Bayer is due to open its own incubator in Berlin this year.

It's currently unclear if Grants4Apps will run again next year, at least in its current form.

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Image credits: pills, Flickr user e-Magine Art; Bayer in Berlin, Flickr user Jeff Keyzer


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