This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Record.
Back in 2014, an innovation team at the Mobile Health Unit – a partnership between Belgium’s Hasselt University and Ziekenhuis Oost-Limburg – was exploring the feasibility of using smartphones to monitor cardiac arrhythmia for patients with heart diseases. Three years later, the team has formed a new medical device company, Qompium, and is working with cardiologists to prescribe its CE-certified FibriCheck mobile app so patients can monitor their heart rate using their smartphones.
The same year, Belgium-based biotechnology company UgenTec harnessed the power of cloud computing to accelerate the analysis of DNA for laboratories. The company has since secured around €3 million (US$3.26 million) in funding.
Both start-ups have one factor in common: they achieved their success with the help of the Microsoft Innovation Center (MIC) in Flanders, Belgium.
Opened in 2012, MIC Flanders is a non-for-profit, public-private partnership between the government, universities and research centres, public and private organisations, and Microsoft.
“MIC Flanders aims to create an ecosystem of start-ups that will drive digital transformation in Belgium’s complicated healthcare system, which is heavily subsidised,” says director Tom Braekeleirs. “The federal government manages public health, but regional authorities coordinate care services, so it’s difficult for start-ups to navigate the maze of reimbursement policies and find gaps where they can add value to the existing system.”
The team at MIC Flanders uses government grants and funding from corporations to help entrepreneurs do just that. “Our main focus is to get as many people as possible to suggest innovations that could help the digital transformation of Belgium’s healthcare system,” Braekeleirs explains. “We start by hosting innovation camps and hackathons, then we use our four-month Health Ramp Up acceleration programme to help promising organisations move from initial ideas to a viable business plan supported by their first round of investments. Our role in three words: ideation, matchmaker and accelerator.”
Braekeleirs recalls one early hackathon that was particularly successful in which a nurse named Linda challenged entrepreneurs to make it easier and more cost-effective for hospitals to manage patients with chronic diseases.
“The result was a digital health software company named LindaCare, which provides integrated telemonitoring software solutions that make it cheaper and easier for hospitals to provide high quality care for patients with chronic heart failure and cardiac arrhythmia,” he says. “Not only does LindaCare now work with Belgium’s largest hospital – University Hospital Leuven – but it has also received a US$500,000 grant to open a US office. That’s just one example of how powerful it can be to work with an MIC.”
Similar powerful partnerships have also been formed elsewhere in the world. For example, Microsoft joined with the Madrid Regional Government, universities and industry partners – such as Real Madrid FC and MediaPro – to open the Global Sports Innovation Center (GSIC) in Madrid, Spain in May 2015.
“GSIC was created as a global hub with an open collaboration philosophy to foster innovation and the development of technologies for all sports-related industries,” says Iris Córdoba, general manager at GSIC, adding that it is the only MIC specifically focused on the sports sector. “We use funding from our partners to create synergies between our more than 100 members and relevant public institutions, representatives in the academia and sports industry. Our four pillars are to: provide a business hub where members can find collaborators for their projects; work on applied research and development; support start-ups by bridging the gap with bigger companies and delivering access to Microsoft technology through BizSpark programme; and give visibility to our members’ technology developments in our showroom.”
The GSIC has already helped several members to use technologies such as the cloud, mobile, big data, the internet of things, virtual reality and biomechanics to develop solutions that prevent injury and improve health and well-being.
“We’ve assisted members to join forces with other companies to create new business-to-consumer and business-to-business services and products, and connect them with sports organisations that have since become clients,” says Córdoba. “In 2016 alone, we created synergies for around 40 partners, giving them business opportunities they would not otherwise have had.”
It’s not just start-ups in Belgium and Spain who are benefitting from the MICs. Currently, Microsoft operates 120 innovation centres in 33 countries worldwide, all of which run in collaboration with local governments, universities and Microsoft’s other industry partners.
Equipped with Microsoft software, devices and skilled IT specialists, each MIC runs expert-led workshops, training and certification sessions, and networking events for students, academic researchers, IT developers and entrepreneurs. Participants also have free access to Microsoft software, cloud and developer tools, and they can use the MICs’ meeting rooms and conference facilities to kick-start product launches. Key partners also reap rewards.
“Partners can take advantage of networking opportunities and gain access to services and exclusive events, or use the MIC facilities to host their own meetings and events,” remarks Córdoba. “In addition, the GSIC management team showcases and promotes the innovations created by its partners at international events.”
Braekeleirs agrees, noting that there are two types of partners: those interested in the end goal, and those who want to support the process and audience.
“Typically, governments want to create new companies and employment opportunities, while corporations invest because they want to be on the front-line of innovation and invest in start-ups while they’re at the very early stages,” he explains. “For Microsoft, MICs are partially a citizenship driver, but also serve a commercial purpose where the dream is we’ll find the next breakthrough company that has built its solution on the Microsoft platform.”