No needless infant mortality and access to health care for 100 million people by 2030. Those are the goals that general practitioner and tropical doctor Niek Versteegde has set himself with start-up GOAL 3. The end justifies the means, so says Versteegde. “It’s not the most common path in terms of market, product and how we want to proceed, but for us, this is the best way to make an impact on a grand scale.”
GOAL 3 is focusing on the African market. Versteegde recounts how eleven years ago, as an intern, he saw with his own eyes the hectic conditions in a Tanzanian hospital. He also saw children dying unnecessarily from dehydration, pneumonia and blood poisoning, among other things. “If you can accurately identify the symptoms of those diseases, then they are very treatable,” he says.
START-UPS EN SPIN-OFFS
TU Eindhoven (TU/e) is a breeding ground for new ideas that rely on scientific research. Sometimes these ideas develop into spin-offs and start-ups. This brings scientific research a step closer to society. In collaboration with The Gate and Innovation Origins, TU/e puts the spotlight every month on an innovative company that has emerged from scientific research. In episode 4: GOAL 3.
Yet doctors and nurses do not have the equipment to continuously monitor, for example, a newborn baby’s heart rate and blood pressure. They also lack the time; often a nurse is in charge of thirty babies.
Versteegde’s internship marked the start of a mission that brought him to Bart Bierling, among others. Together with him, the doctor developed the ‘IMPALA’ platform. A robust and easy-to-use smart monitor system that enables nurses to monitor a large number of babies simultaneously via a tablet. They jointly founded GOAL 3 two years ago.
At the end of 2020, the company raised money through a crowdfunding campaign to test the monitor on about fifty patients in Malawi. Last year, Bierling left for the African country for six months to carry out the first pilot studies there. Versteegde and Jelle Schuitemaker, chief marketing officer of the start-up, also pitched their case on the Dutch TV program Dragon’s Den. The benefit gala that they were pledged, they passed on to the WereldOuders Foundation.
Meanwhile, the first business angels are stepping in and private investors can join via Symbid.nl since last month. With that funding, GOAL 3 is heading back to Africa for new clinical trials involving about a thousand patients. The company wants to launch ‘IMPALA’ on the market in early 2023. Those clinical studies and the market introduction will also be accelerated through the partnership with Philips Foundation Impact Investments B.V. This subsidiary of the Philips Foundation joined the start-up at the beginning of May.
You can add all kinds of resources in this kind of African setting, but there is often just not enough money for that.
“Work smarter, not harder”
Versteegde is not opting for the most conventional path. “The industry for medical products almost always focuses on the Western market. So, this is already different. What’s more, many of these kinds of systems focus purely on improving healthcare. Whereas, in my experience, what is needed most of all is efficiency. After all, you can always add all kinds of resources in this kind of African setting, but there is often just not enough money for that.”
According to Versteegde, the whole idea is to achieve more within the constraints of the resources that are available. “We need to work smarter, not harder.”
Often these are NGOs or foundations that are active in Africa. “We are also an oddity in that respect. We choose an entrepreneurial approach in a landscape where a lot of non-profit organizations are active in the main.” Schuitemaker developed a business model whereby hospitals can rent a monitor for a fixed sum per month, training and maintenance are also included. That investment not only saves lives, but a local hospital also saves about fifty thousand euros per year, according to Versteegde.
“What you often see is that a great e-health application has been developed that runs successfully in one hospital. The only thing that is missing is a plan to use the application in other hospitals. There is no commercial model behind it. A business model helps us to think about how we are going to create a product that really meets the needs of the people there. What they are really willing to pay for. So there really is support and ownership for what you bring over there.”
Doctor at heart
There is also an ‘advantage’ to the African market bypassing the Western one, Versteegde goes on to say. “There are huge opportunities once you start to grow. You then actually end up in a blue ocean where you don’t need to compete with anything and everything. There aren’t a hundred different integration issues per hospital. You can set up one kind of solution which is ultimately easily scalable.” But things haven’t reached that point yet for GOAL 3. “We first have to demonstrate that there is a demand for our system. Show that people are really satisfied with our system. If we succeed in doing that, then we will be able to grow quickly.”
What does all the hard work here mean if you look at the precariousness of life over there? So then I think: Stop whining, just get on with it.
The road Versteegde is taking is a long one. “It takes perseverance and determination, but that is what it always takes. If it was easy, it would have been done already.” For Versteegde, doing nothing is not an option. He wants to improve access to healthcare worldwide. “We are trying to solve that within the constraints that are there. The drive to keep on going is something I see in the whole team.”
He began his mission as a doctor and he still is that at heart, he insists. Over time, he became an entrepreneur. Versteegde barely has time for his work as a general practitioner. “That is limited to a few shifts.” He finds it difficult to really say goodbye to his profession. “Although in this phase of scaling up, I guess I will have to.”
Last year he had two weeks of vacation and was working around seventy hours a week. “It’s hard work, along with my wife working on her doctoral research and a family of two kids. Then I sometimes also feel fed up and want to have a nice break. But then I put everything into perspective. What does all the hard work here mean if you look at the precariousness of life over there? So then I think: ‘Stop whining, just get on with it.'”
Versteegde gets his main motivation from the children. One of the first children to reap the benefits of the incubator unit he set up in Tanzania was named after him: Niek Mandela. Two years later, when he was there with his similarly aged son Guus, he saw them playing together. “That’s what you do it for. I feel that every time I hold my kids.” Guus will be six in June and now has a sister, Jet, aged three.
As Versteegde sees it, it really is time for a change. The start-up, therefore, issued a manifesto aimed at leaders in healthcare and medtech companies. Apart from that, Versteegde is hoping that the new crowdfunding campaign will get new people on board. “People who can also see that building on something that is future-proof is important. Something that pushes the world in the right direction and sets change in motion. A change that is more broad-based than just a product.”