Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be the first area of focus in a convergence of SingHealth’s and SGInnovate’s strengths.

Health tech innovations in Singapore and the world over have developed rapidly against the backdrop of COVID-19 over the past two years. Now the sector is set to pick up even more speed with a new partnership between SingHealth and SGInnovate, an agency supporting deep-tech startups.

The three-year partnership seeks to build and scale up health science innovations, beginning with AI as a focus area to start. The ultimate goal is to improve diagnostics and treatment, and enhance healthcare delivery and clinical outcomes through the adoption of AI and other emerging technologies.

Both organisations marked the milestone by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on 9 November. The event was graced by Minister for Health Mr Ong Ye Kung.

Joint effort to put AI in focus

The first priority of the partnership is to foster AI thought leadership and sharpen the innovation acumen of AI and health talent.

For instance, the partnership will build a Community of Practice that regularly brings together SingHealth clinicians and innovators and SGInnovate’s public and private sector partners. This includes quarterly AI and digital innovation journal clubs to generate awareness on the AI and digital innovation domains, and an annual AI in health workshop to educate industry partners, healthcare workers and the public on the latest regulations, research findings and AI adoptions in the industry.

The first of such initiatives took place the same day following the formal inking of the partnership, at the Deep Tech summit organized by SGInnovate in conjunction with the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) 2021. Both parties co-curated the health and biomedical sciences track, where panellists shed light on the rising complexity of the healthcare sector and the importance of nurturing a pool of diverse, multidisciplinary talent armed with entrepreneurial skills and business acumen.

Activities that facilitate Open Innovation, including reverse pitches, is yet another highlight, as clinicians are able to share healthcare gaps and identify an ideal collaborator within SGInnovate’s wide network of deep tech companies and investors.

It also helps to catalyse the development of SingHealth’s existing AI programme, which is working to tackle emerging trends such as chronic diseases, declining healthcare manpower, COVID-19 and more, shared Associate Professor Daniel Ting, Director of the SingHealth AI programme.

Some exciting SingHealth AI projects in the works include JARVIS-DHL that can predict the likelihood of a patient with diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia developing complications, and a novel Intelligent Cardiac Risk Stratification System (ICRSS) to predict the risk of a Major Adverse Cardiac Event (MACE).

“Can Singapore become the Silicon Valley of the East? In my very humble opinion, this is no longer just a dream,” Prof Ting commented.

“SingHealth is Singapore’s largest public healthcare cluster. Our startups will now have access to this tremendous resource, associated data sets and better understand both the patient journeys and the care pathways. This will make for better products,” said Dr Lim Jui, CEO, SGInnovate in his opening address.

Meanwhile, Professor Ivy Ng, Group CEO of SingHealth, shared that the collaboration was strategic, alluding to SingHealth’s extensive clinical capabilities, vast patient data and pool of clinician innovators, and SGInnovate’s deep tech expertise and diverse community of corporates and startups.

“This amalgamation of the right networks and resources will provide a conducive environment to incubate innovative ideas, and accelerate the process of development, testing and adoption of health science innovations by both healthcare innovators and industry players,” she said.

Professor Kenneth Kwek, Deputy Group CEO (Innovation & Informatics), SingHealth added, “AI is a growing field in healthcare, and an important part of SingHealth’s innovation efforts. As healthcare needs evolve, the adoption of emerging technologies, such as AI, in Medicine will be crucial in optimising resources and enhancing care delivery to improve clinical outcomes for patients. We look forward to working with SGInnovate to create greater synergies between healthcare innovation and enterprise, and to further leverage the power of AI to shape the future of healthcare.”

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Importance of startups in healthcare innovation

For Prof Ting and many other med tech innovators, experience has shown that the journey of taking a concept to pilot and subsequently to scale involves a long chain of collaborators. However, it takes a village to make such partnerships happen.

“SingHealth is a big believer in partnering with startups and giving them opportunities to thrive,” stated Ms Lee Chen Ee, Group Director of Innovation and Transformation at SingHealth, and Co-Chair of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medicine Innovation Institute, during a panel discussion at the MOU signing event.

Currently, SingHealth organizes SME-Connect events for healthcare innovators to share their problem statements with start-ups and SMEs, to co-develop solutions together. Various innovations that have emerged from the group have been co-created with small- and medium-sized enterprises in Singapore. A good example is the SG-SPARC system which quickly converts wards and operating theatres into negative pressure isolation rooms. SingHealth also has a strong partnership with Enterprise Singapore to matchmake SMEs which are keen to testbed solutions in the healthcare setting, or partner with healthcare professionals.

Ms Jacqueline Poh, Managing Director, Singapore Economic Development Board, shared on the challenges and initiatives in place to support and enable healthtech startups to get a footing for such collaborations to happen.

“It can be challenging for startups to break into the healthcare industry, because of the limited opportunities to showcase their innovations in an industry sandbox,” said Ms Poh, who is also a SingHealth board member. “There are two things that the Healthcare ecosystem can do to help these startups get their first break. First, establishing a Healthcare data sandbox which allows the industry to tap on selected national healthcare data for pilot projects. Second, giving these startups a chance to participate in these pilots – no matter how small their role may be.”

“We are hoping that with SGInnovate, we can further support our SMEs,” Ms Lee added.

Taking an idea from concept to bedside does not come without challenges, one of which is procurement regulations that may slow down the process of deep tech adoption and viable scaling for commercial partners.

One way that SingHealth is hoping to overcome this hurdle is through the creation of procurement “green-lanes” for innovation, and a non-procurement route to adopt co-developed solutions more quickly, shared Ms Lee. Obstacles aside, at the heart of success, she added, must be a genuine spirit of collaboration between the different parties so innovations can be adopted and scaled up.

As digital disruption continues to happen and urgency to prepare for the next pandemic builds up, SingHealth and SGInnovate’s joint vision can only bode well for the future of healthcare in Singapore and beyond. Said Dr Lim, “Years from now, I hope people will look back on this moment and say that was a watershed in entrenching innovation in our healthcare innovation.”

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