Nurturing the start-up ecosystem to become a MedTech powerhouse

Medical technology is becoming increasingly important to ensure the quality and affordability of our future healthcare. Within Holst Centre, TNO and imec are collaborating within this ecosystem on technological building blocks that allow start-ups to develop innovative applications in sensing and imaging. 'The Netherlands has everything to become a powerhouse for MedTech'.

In the face of an aging population, increasing chronic diseases, anticipated shortages of health care workers, and soaring health care costs, new technological solutions are needed to improve the quality and affordability of healthcare in the near future. Medical technologies, or MedTech, are a rapidly growing field to which Holst Centre has contributed substantially in the past. Patrick van Deursen, Programme Director Health of imec at Holst Centre: "In recent years, we have built a strong track record in sensing technologies, both for large hospitals, and smaller applications. But also in diagnostic devices and therapeutic applications to enable interventions. And we are developing technology for monitoring applications using sensing and screening, both for in-hospital, and remote applications."   

Patrick van Deursen, Patrick van Deursen, Programme Director Health of imec at Holst Centre

Fully complementary  

TNO and imec are highly complementary in the field of MedTech. Jeroen van den Brand, Department Manager Printed Electronics at TNO within Holst Centre. "Traditionally, TNO has been more on the system integration side, putting together innovative manufacturing technologies, such as hybrid printed electronics, as building blocks into a single system. TNO's speciality is still wearables, where ultrasound and smart flexible structures contribute to all kinds of sensing applications." Imec mainly specialises in system integration of different chip functionalities for a variety of sensing applications: optical, photonic, biological and ultrasound. These chips can be combined as building blocks in new medical devices. The health patch for vital sign monitoring shows well how Holst Centre optimally integrates the expertise of both parties in a new application.  


Corporates rely on start-ups for innovation  

In recent years, there has been a profound shift in the way medical corporations approach innovation. Jeroen van den Brand notes, "Large companies are becoming increasingly hesitant to invest in R&D independently and assume significant risks. Instead, they opt to acquire promising start-ups that have already developed a product." However, this innovation strategy poses challenges, as observed by Patrick van Deursen, particularly in the Netherlands. "For start-ups, the landscape here is much more challenging compared to the US, for instance. This is primarily due to the intricacies of our healthcare system and the complexities of laws and regulations. Typically, a start-up emerges from a specific pain point: the absence of a treatment for a disease or a solution to a problem or process. To demonstrate the added value of their product, start-ups must heavily invest in deep-tech development and the application itself. Deep-tech development, such as what we do at Holst Centre, is extremely time and cost-intensive. However, start-ups often lack the resources necessary for both, necessitating collaboration with other parties to ultimately bring their vision to market."  



For Holst Centre, the evolution in the innovation strategy within the medical sector represents a promising opportunity. Patrick van Deursen explains: "We have all the necessary ingredients in the Netherlands to nurture technologically robust MedTech start-ups with significant market potential. We can contribute to this by giving start-ups access to our technological building blocks – deep tech they may not have the time or resources to develop independently." To foster a thriving ecosystem for MedTech start-ups, Holst Centre is spearheading the Tech4Health consortium in collaboration with the directors of the University of Twente's Technical Medical Centre. The goal is to make the plans in Tech4Health a reality by working closely with the ministry of economic affairs. Jeroen van den Brand adds: "We believe there is a strong demand in the Netherlands for an entity that can support MedTech start-ups in reaching maturity and bringing their products to market. Within this initiative, we aim to cultivate two robust ecosystems: imaging technology, encompassing MRI and ultrasound, and sensing, including medical devices and wearables. These are two domains with immense growth potential."  

Jeroen van den Brand, Jeroen van den Brand, Department Manager Printed Electronics at TNO within Holst Centre

Building blocks with high TRL’s  

This innovative approach to MedTech innovation also necessitates a shift in Holst Centre's strategy, as explained by Patrick van Deursen. "While we were previously primarily focused on research, we now need to ensure that the Technological Readiness Levels (TRLs) of our technological building blocks are significantly higher. This entails investing in technical venture capital ourselves, which is precisely what our partners and Holst Centre are doing within Tech4Health. Our objective is to develop innovations over the long term, establish test facilities, and pioneer treatment methods for new technological advancements. As Holst Centre, we and our partners are ideally positioned for this task, given our expertise in creating technical building blocks and ensuring their manufacturability and integration. Moreover, we have extensive experience in fostering and collaborating with start-ups, exemplified by ventures like Onera, which focuses on sleep apnoea detection, and Bloomlife, which concentrates on mother-child monitoring during pregnancies."  


Cooperation is key  

Another significant advantage for start-ups is Holst Centre's familiarity with laws and regulations, traditionally a major hurdle for MedTech start-ups. Patrick van Deursen explains, "We strive to gather as much medical evidence as possible for our building blocks, so documentation is already largely complete. Furthermore, we are advancing technology integration to the extent that start-ups can collaborate with us to manufacture small product series for deployment in clinical settings." Recognising the importance of collaboration in overcoming obstacles and expediting time to market, Jeroen van den Brand highlights, "A successful market launch hinges not only on performance but also on collaboration—such as between health insurers and medical providers. Continuous dialogue is essential. With a robust, diverse MedTech innovation ecosystem, we can collectively achieve this objective."  


A MedTech powerhouse  

Considering the economic opportunities and earning potential of the Netherlands in MedTech, both gentlemen foresee significant prospects. "I believe TNO will particularly see an increase in production capacities, while imec will have more opportunities to explore various applications in the market," asserts Van Deursen. "With this synergy, we contribute to the economic strength of this region and the Netherlands as a whole." Jeroen van den Brand echoes his sentiments, stating, "It would be fantastic to see this region evolve into a hub for MedTech. We have the infrastructure, the talent, and the expertise necessary to make this vision a reality." Patrick van Deursen adds, "Philips departed from the Natlab with a purpose to be more market focused, leading to the establishment of Holst Centre: a nurturing ground for open research & innovation. Building on this foundation, we can transform the High Tech Campus into a powerhouse for MedTech."