Over the past three days, the Africa Health Exhibition has taken place in Midrand where over 10,000 people – delegates, speakers, exhibitors and visitors – gathered for the event. In parallel with the exhibition were 17 academic conferences, one of which focused on biomedical engineering and how medical devices could contribute to the future of healthcare in Africa. The afternoon session included the experiences of three local companies.
Kit Vaughan, CEO of CapeRay, spoke about some of the lessons he had learned over the past decade. These included: when bringing a new product to market, it will take you twice as long and cost double the amount anticipated; develop your product with “free” money from government agencies before talking to venture capitalists and other investors; keep your first product simple and bring it to market as soon as possible; don’t underestimate the value of a patent; understand your channel to market – customers will not beat a path to your front door to purchase a better mousetrap; and patience is a virtue – keep it if you can!
Francois Oosthuizen (seen left), technology commercialisation manager in Research Contracts & Innovation at the University of Cape Town (UCT), spoke about the bridge between industry and academia. He pointed out that the global spend on healthcare in 2020 is projected to be almost $9 trillion and, with the need to contain costs, medical device manufacturers will have to innovate to remain competitive. Francois highlighted the importance of synergistic relationships between universities and companies, especially in this age of the 4th industrial revolution where digital disruption by players like Google will play a major role in the future development of novel medical devices.
Recent MSc graduates from UCT’s biomedical engineering programme, Giancarlo Beukes and Gokul Nair, provided an illuminating perspective on their experience with Impulse Biomedical, a medical device startup. Their flagship product is the ZiBiPen (seen below right), a patented auto-injector with reloadable adrenaline cartridges for treating anaphylaxis. Their journey from concept to commercialisation has been a bumpy ride – and they are not there yet – but they have learnt positive lessons: believe in your technology; listen, learn and keep moving forward; hustle and celebrate small victories.
South Africa currently imports 90% of its medical devices so there are real opportunities for innovative manufacturers. These devices should not only be for local consumption but for export as well, thus improving the trade imbalance. Of course, the major focus should be on improved healthcare for all the world’s citizens.