(Published - 22 July 2019)
“The digital health landscape is ripe with opportunity – for entrepreneurs, yes, but also for the public who need convenient health solutions, and for the overstretched public healthcare system. We’re used to the convenience of the app economy and the developments of fintech. But with medtech, the best medical solutions can be rolled out to the masses – and that is something that’s very exciting.”
Siraaj Adams, CEO of Digital Health (Pty) Ltd, an accelerator to support digital health start-ups mature to access commercial contracts and obtain long-term sustainability and stability, is well-placed to lead the coming health revolution. He shared his vision and his story at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) School of Public Health on 18 July 2019 – as the recipient of the Jakes Gerwel Award.
The annual award, endowed by the Mauerberger Foundation, honours and recognises former UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor Jakes Gerwel’s central role in promoting public health practice, and is open to all graduates of the School who have, through their work, made an impact on public health through professional or academic leadership and innovation.
“Jakes Gerwel was the Rector of UWC for seven years – it wasn’t all that long,” Uta Lehmann, Director of the School of Public Health, noted. “And yet we still rest on the foundations that he built during those years. He was a very remarkable man for a very special time, and his vision is still very present in the University, and the wider community.”
Siraaj spent 10 years in HIV disease management, and then using his pharmacy, public health, business and entrepreneurial skills moved into the development of digital platforms, developing several HIV and TB apps for the National Department of Health.
“In the tech space, there’s this whole culture of paying it forward – helping other people through the incubator model and the accelerator model,” he said. “I realised that I could use my network to help others find sustainability.”
Digital Health Cape Town (DHCT) helps local digital health entrepreneurs engage with mentors, leading healthcare organisations and business leaders to refine their innovations.
“We aim to give digital health entrepreneurs the tools they need to introduce a commercially viable product or service into the market,” Adams explained. “We work with new and up and coming disruptors to the digital health space to give them a platform to learn, refine and network with the right people - combining the latest advances in technology with modern medicine.”
Their work aims to meet the real needs of community and public health - technology to deal with diseases like HIV and TB, lifestyle issues and pregnancy, wellness and exercise, and more.
Young startups apply to be part of the DHCT accelerator, and receive mentorship and guidance with the aim of maturing to the point of attracting investment, securing clients, and ultimately making a difference.
“We look at the business plan, of course, and the technology developed,” said Adams. “But more importantly, we look at the problem they’re tackling - and the team and their experience. It’s about people, ultimately.”
“The wave of digital innovation is going to continue, and then get more sophisticated,” Adams noted. “Doctors will all have tablets, and you’ll handle all your basic booking, referral and other needs there. Then we’re going to have more sophisticated use of data, and eventually personalised medication - based on individual need, as opposed to what everyone requires..”
Health As A Community Matter: It Takes A Village
Prof Gerwel saw the need for UWC to focus on public health practice that led to measurable improvements in peoples’ health, and on policy that was based on solid science.
Siraaj obtained his pharmacy degree in 2000 and Master's in Public Health (MPH) in 2016, both from UWC, and also has an MBA from UCT. He credits his MPH as being a turning point in his career to focus his skills on health innovations at a population level, and at the same time partner with local entrepreneurs to apply digital solutions to community level initiatives.
“I was lucky in that I also got involved very early on in getting involved – and this unique network was something that I’ve been able to work with over time as well - and that can help empower others.”
Adams has no plans to stop empowering disruptors anytime soon.
“Digital health is an evolving space,” he said. “Everybody’s trying it, nobody’s really gotten it right yet - but we’re going to keep trying. And ultimately, people in need of better care are going to see the difference. That’s what we need to see.”