A Dream Team of start-ups that are disrupting healthcare

New technologies and innovations are constantly changing and improving the way we do things and approach problems. Processes, institutions and industries that have been around and unchanged for decades are now being rethought and redesigned with the aid of technology. Many of these adaptions and approaches are not being developed by large, established industry leaders but rather by their smaller, early-stage counterparts.


Last August, the World Economic Forum released its Technology Pioneers 2014 report, a compilation of 36 leading start-ups selected by world-renowned experts due to their demonstrative vision and leadership, potential for growth and innovative ideas, as well as their impact on society and business.

Among the selected start-up, 10 work within the life sciences and healthcare industries. They are developing more precise and targeted therapies, new robotics based assistance technologies and enabling better access to medical assistance to people:

Agios Pharmaceuticals Inc.

All cells require nutrients, which they process using a type of proteins called enzymes. Cancer cells not only consume more nutrients than other cells, they also process them differently. Agios is using this insight to pioneer an entirely new way of treating cancer. It is based on starving diseased cells of the nutrients they need.

BIND Therapeutics Inc.

Drugs that kill cancer cells are generally toxic to healthy cells as well, and to get these drugs to the diseased cells, you have to treat the whole body. This leads to serious side effects that limit the ability to treat the cancer effectively. BIND’s nanomedicine platform has a game-changing ability to target therapeutics to the site of disease, which could transform the treatment of cancer and other diseases

Bluebird bio

Gene therapy holds the promise of transforming the way we treat many life-threatening diseases. Bluebird bio is pioneering a way to correct anomalous sections of DNA that cause disease and are passed from generation to generation. It uses virus to rewrite patients’ DNA. The company has identified a way to harness the natural ability of the human immunodeficiency virus to insert a modified gene into a patient’s own stem cells, which are capable of changing into multiple cell types, providing the company with the opportunity of treating a wide range of genetic diseases.

Cyberdyne Inc.

In hospitals and nursing homes in Japan, disabled people are learning to walk again by wearing a robot suit developed by Cyberdyne. The exoskeleton is called HAL, the Hybrid Assistive Limb, and it s strapped to one or both legs. HAL’s potential applications include use as a neuro-rehabilitation device for patients who are recovering from a stroke or who have a disease of the brain or nervous system, and helping the elderly and disabled to regain or maintain autonomy in their daily activities.

D-Rev: Design Revolution

It designs medical devices for the 4 billion people who live on less than US$ 4 a day. It has pioneered affordable prosthetics like ReMotion knee, a device made from injection-molded plastic that offers vastly better performance at less than one-tenth the cost of high-end more typical titanium prosthetics.

Foundation Medicine Inc.

It has developed a single, comprehensive, test which has the potential to fundamentally change the way cancer patients are treated. Called FoundationOne™, the test analyzes the genomic profile of the patient assessing 236 cancer genes and suggests specific therapies that might prove effective and that are either commercially available or in clinical trials


They have developed a non-invasive test to analyze chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome in the fetus with levels of accuracy comparable to traditional amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling. The test, which can be performed as early as in the ninth week of pregnancy, involves analyzing the mother’s blood which contains tiny fragments of free-floating fetal DNA.

Second Sight Medical Products Inc.

Second Sight has developed the first ever approved treatment to partially restore vision to blind people. Their “bionic eye” Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is enabling some blind patients to perform visual tasks such as identifying doorways, following sidewalks and reading large-print words. The Argus II involves an implant which is surgically inserted onto the retina and sends electrical impulses to the brain, causing the patient to perceive patterns of light.

Selecta Biosciences Inc.

They have designed nanoparticles that boost the immune system’s response to invaders it should be fighting and to dampen its response to things it is fighting by mistake.

SynTouch LLC

It has invented the world’s first robot finger with the sensitivity of human touch. The SynTouch BioTac is a tactile sensor that registers the three modalities that give humans sensory feedback from their fingertips – force, vibration and temperature. It offers potential for robots to become much more dexterous and versatile to perform a wide range of tasks.

Engineering, a mirror for med-tech innovation

Medical devices play an important role in enhancing patients’ quality of life and supporting the healthcare system, but there is a need for improved methodology to obtain evidence for their safety, performance and efficacy.

According to the report Establishing high-level evidence for the safety and efficacy of medical devices and systems from the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, med-tech innovation could learn from engineering how to do so. One of the guidelines outlined in the report, produced following a roundtable discussion featuring clinicians and engineers, is the requirement to develop devices that meet real clinical needs. Clinicians, device manufacturers and the ‘end user’ should work together to identify which devices need to be developed to meet patient’s needs.

The recommendation is in line with Design Health Barcelona program, which places the hospital at the core of the innovation process. The three teams of fellows will experience at the very beginning an eight-weeks long clinical immersion to identify unsolved problems and to later develop innovative solutions to address them.


Other transferable lessons mentioned in the report are:

1.The use of continuous monitoring of systems in use to improve design and reduce the risk to fail.

2. The use of observational studies where randomized controlled trials are not possible or appropriate because they can deliver valuable information about how technologies function in real-world settings.

3. The establishment of a regulatory framework that specifies the different levels of evidence required to ensure safety, performance and efficacy at different stages throughout the life and iterations of the medical device.

4. The establishment of a prescriptive, yet responsive, regulatory framework to ensure the withdrawal of faulty products from the market as quickly as possible.

5.To promote the integration and contribution of a more diverse range of stakeholders -patients, engineers, manufacturers, healthcare professionals and economists- in the design of medical devices.

If you want to read the full report, it is available here.