The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has shone a light on innovation happening at pace in healthtech hubs all over the world. But the question is: what key factors contribute to the emergence of a healthtech ecosystem, and how does this compare across different territories?

The Cambridge phenomenon 

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In the UK, established hubs, such as Cambridge, have dominated much of the narrative. The city exemplifies an established ecosystem that is actively contributing to the global pandemic efforts. In April 2020, the University of Cambridge joined forces with AstraZeneca and GSK to create the Cambridge Testing Centre — a state-of-the-art coronavirus testing facility — and a timely example of how private and public partnerships are bolstering healthtech innovation. 

Cambridge is also the perfect example of an organically developed ecosystem. According to Martin Frost, the co-founder of robotics company CMR Surgical, Cambridge is founded on several key ingredients: a world-class university, formal industry networks, successful entrepreneurs who are willing and able to get stuck in, and a healthy attitude towards risk and failure. 

Despite its strong foundations, Cambridge’s success did not happen overnight. “All these things take time,” Mr Frost acknowledges. “Those of us helping to build healthtech businesses today have a lot to thank the early pioneers who had the vision and helped build the Cambridge Science Park in 1970.” 

Today, the park is home to more than 130 businesses, including AstraZeneca, which co-developed a Covid-19 vaccine with Oxford University. 

Cambridge’s academic community also makes an invaluable contribution. The university’s commercial arm, Cambridge Enterprise, saw its venture funding capacity grow by 730% and the amount of spin-outs created rise by 250% over the past decade.

The city benefits from a healthy venture capital (VC) scene. According to Tech Nation’s 2020 report, the city was among the top 10 most well-funded cities in Europe in 2019. 

“In Europe, London and the ‘Golden Triangle’ it forms with Cambridge and Oxford still stand head and shoulders above the other places when it comes to the size and reach of its healthtech ecosystem,” Pierre Socha, a partner at Amadeus Capital, a Cambridge-based VC fund, explains. “It’s got plenty of talent, and the highest density of biotech and pharma companies outside of the US and entrepreneurial universities.” 

Funding in the Golden Triangle

According to PitchBook, London is the UK’s most popular destination for healthtech VCs. Companies in the city have raised more than $1.6bn since 2015. Megarounds included diagnostics company LumiraDX’s $270m fundraise in January 2019 and its $389.16m round in December 2020.

Cambridge is the second most popular destination for VC money. In 2015, the city’s ecosystem was bolstered by $24.84m. The following year saw a significant drop in investment ($15.56m), with subsequent recoveries in 2017 ($16.8m) and 2018 ($21.73m). Investment peaked in 2019 when investors poured $133.04m into 11 companies. Some $75.16m was raised in 2020 and so far this year, companies in the city have received $3.4m. 

Investors in Oxford — the third UK city in terms of healthtech investment — spent $280.7m from 2015 to date. 

Beyond the Golden Triangle

This region may be the dominant player, but innovation is also happening elsewhere in the UK. Leeds is home to several medical institutions, including NHS Digital, and Leeds University is investing £40m ($55m) in a research centre called Nexus, which will provide labs and offices for healthtech and other start-ups.

Bruno Moraes, country manager at Wayra UK, which runs Health Hub, a healthcare accelerator programme, says he has also seen “pools of incredible healthtech talent” emerge in places like Manchester — the fifth most popular destination for VC money, with $79.07m in investment since 2015.

Across the border, in Scotland, Wayra runs an artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain programme in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, giving start-ups an additional opportunity to shine in front of industry stakeholders. 

“These businesses benefit disproportionately from early input from corporates ... they also benefit immensely from connections to the NHS, which are harder for smaller companies to get individually,” Mr Moraes added. 

Edinburgh, ranked fourth in terms of VC investment, has seen increased deal flow since 2015. Since then, Edinburgh’s firms have raised a collective $84.24m across 32 deals. 

Accelerators

Although VCs play a pivotal role in the emergence of healthtech hubs, accelerators are often the first point of contact for founders seeking funding and other assistance.

Sergey Musienko, the chief executive of London-based Atlas Biomed, a biomedical tech company developing molecular genetics and bioinformatics, said: “The university spin-off route is the most typical way for a start-up to secure funding, but it’s also the hardest as it involves understanding a customer’s perspective and their needs, assessing market demand, validating the technology, hiring a team, and raising money.”

The UK is no stranger to the world tech stage. Its relatively relaxed regulatory environment and high concentration of corporates, talent and world-leading universities have helped cement its prowess in almost every tech vertical. Although healthtech is no exception, Brexit could easily dampen the mood.

“The UK is still the place to be for healthtech. However, potential limitations in a flexible exchange with Europe in future are a concern. This might turn out to be a rate-limiting factor,” said Konrad Dobschuetz, head of digital innovation, customer solutions, and Biome Lead UK at Novartis.

New York and Tel Aviv

On a global scale, North America is the most popular destination for VC healthtech investment. According to PitchBook, stateside companies attracted a staggering $26.5bn from Q1 2019 to date. Meanwhile, European healthtech companies raised a respectable $5.3bn, and Asian counterparts received $5.5bn.

New York and London may dominate the space in North America and Europe, but Mark Tluszcz, chief executive of early-stage VC firm Mangrove Capital Partners, says Tel Aviv sits comfortably alongside them.

Primarily known for its AI and cyber security expertise, Tel Aviv is making waves in healthtech. A report by Invest In Israel claims that the country’s share of investment in the space grew significantly between 2014 to 2019, from 1.5% of global investments in digital health to 4.5%. Healthy.io, which developed an image-recognition app to help with diagnosis, has so far received $90m, and is just one of the hundreds of healthtech outfits based in the city.

The recipe for success

London, Cambridge, Oxford and New York may well be the blueprint for healthtech success, but investment is bolstering the development of rising ecosystems elsewhere. 

Every hub is uniquely different in its size, maturity and expertise, but the recipe for success remains unchanged. A steady supply of talent, academic research, corporate partnerships, funding and a favourable regulatory environment are the key differentiators in a hub’s longevity.

Yessi Bello-Perez is the co-host of the Rising Ecosystems podcast on fdiintelligence.com

This article first appeared in the February/March print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.