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Iceland’s natural and digital approach to healthcare disrupts global sector

Iceland has the perfect blend of natural health remedies and tech startup entrepreneurship to shake up the world healthcare sector

Iceland’s leading entrepreneurs are merging the best of digital with the best of their natural world to elevate global healthcare to new heights. 

Digitising a centuries-long penchant for natural remedies could not be done without an out-of-the-box approach to business building. This unlikely trend has been further catalysed and propelled by the country’s ever-supportive social structure, and a financial crash that has removed any lingering fear of taking chances. 

The result of this perfect storm is not just a fascinating array of novel solutions. Rather, it is a set of technologies that may have been funded and born in Iceland, but are saving lives around the world. 

One protagonist is Sidekick Health, founded by two doctors in 2014 with a view to channeling behavioural economics and therapies through a technical gamified solution. The aim was to give chronic illness sufferers better control over, and insight into, their conditions. 

Oli Viggosson, CTO at the company, said: “The technology to rethink traditional approaches to healthcare and to engage people outside bricks-and-mortar settings already existed through the use of smartphones. Our founders went a step further and realised an opportunity to bring healthcare into people’s homes, delivering clinically validated digital treatments to people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, through those smartphones. 

“Our therapeutics are developed and delivered with digital technology, addressing the same endpoints as effectively as traditional treatments. These include small molecule drugs and biologics, but with the added benefit of giving people the opportunity to be actively involved in their own treatment. When combined with traditional treatments, the overall efficacy is strongly increased.” 

Positively impacting lives 

Viggosson noted that being an Icelandic digital health company brings both opportunities and challenges. The country’s startup scene is maturing thanks to the government’s prioritisation of entrepreneurship.  

However, this is evolving in the face of an obvious drawback – the country has a population of only 370,000. 

He added: “We have a strong record of punching above our weight across many disciplines, and it is the same in this sector. I think it is partly how small we are that drives us – and that suits the startup culture. That is all supported by how Icelandic society is structured – you can fail and make mistakes without the risk of losing everything, thanks to Iceland’s strong welfare system.” 

The result is a strong appetite for risk, and a tendency to search for solutions in hard-to-reach places. “And that is then converted into business success by our overarching goal and ability – positively impacting people’s lives,” said Viggosson.  

Sidekick Health’s technology is doing exactly that. It not only aids and augments traditional treatments, but in some cases actually saves lives by virtue of its platform monitoring chronic illnesses in real time continuously. 

Digital solutions through creative thinking 

The combination of seeking socially impactful applications of technology off the back of a unique cultural instinct makes Iceland’s innovators unique. 

It is a theme echoed by more traditional regeneration specialist Kerecis, whose novel fish-skin solution to treat wounds through raw materials has taken off across Europe, Asia and North America. Founder and CEO Fertram Sigurjonsson leant on his childhood experiences working in Iceland’s fish processing industry, as well as his later exposure to chronic wounds in a prosthetic limbs business, to build an international scaleup 20 miles from the Arctic Circle, in his home town of Isafjordur. 

“After the financial crash, there was a national push encouraging tech development and startups, and I thought there was something in the healthcare industry that I could apply my expertise to,” he said.  

The prospect of merging marine industry, fishing and cutting-edge healthcare could only be reached via these unique circumstances: Sigurjonsson’s background, digital aspirations and strong entrepreneurship, compounded by Iceland’s national support structures.  

“We as a company and a country pride ourselves on offering digital solutions through creative thinking, and it’s a combination that has helped to disrupt global healthcare,” he said. “It has not only allowed our manufacturing operations to become increasingly high-tech through the use of image recognition and machine learning, but also our software, as evidenced by our improved customer service proposition, and a major AI [artificial intelligence] project in collaboration with Amazon Web Services.” 

An offspring of the environment 

This latter relationship perhaps best epitomises what Iceland’s distinctive startup scene can achieve. From one of the planet’s smallest ecosystems, global traction is often achieved – and quickly. 

From an investment standpoint, it may have been a challenging sell to convince the rest of the world of fish skin’s potential in healthcare. Not to Icelandic investors, though. Interest in the proposition came first and foremost from Kerecis’s domestic companions, paving the way for this novel product to gain exposure and attract interest further afield. 

“That interest now largely comes from the US, as well as from doctors in Asia,” said Sigurjonsson. “Doctors in Europe are also now increasingly using our technology as traditional medical practices change and adapt, and as our appealing story continues to get picked up by global media.” 

The ability to maximise limited resources sees Icelanders turn to the natural world around them. Sigurjonsson added that high-tech solutions are not only the key to success, but “key to our survival”. Simply, in order to compete on a global scale, they must leverage what they alone know, and apply it to the most widespread challenges. 

Viggosson concluded: “The most natural remedies are behaviour and lifestyle – about 50% of health outcomes can be met just through these approaches.”  

It just takes a country that prioritises positive behaviours and lifestyles to democratise such a concept on a wide scale. 

“We are an island nation with extreme climactic conditions, and through the centuries, Icelanders have had to be creative to survive,” added Sigurjonsson. “At the same time, we have a very supportive government and a strong societal push for startups and innovation. Digital companies like ours are an offspring of this unique natural environment.” 

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