Healthcare innovations have been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting companies to invest in various products, pharmaceuticals, masks, and medicines.
With lockdowns and other restriction measures across Europe being both on and off during the past few months, and with more and more activities being undertaken remotely, healthcare providers worldwide are turning to new technological advancements now more than ever.
In Ukraine, the med-tech industry is becoming increasingly popular, with the country having 14 startups included in the EMERGE list of 100 most promising startups in the Central and Eastern Europe region.
Telemedicine company ComeBack Mobility is one of the startups on that list. Established in 2020, the company has designed a telemedicine device that attaches to the end of walking crutches and helps aid patients' recovery from leg injuries.
Smart Crutch Tips connect to the patient's smartphone via Bluetooth, and then – based on weight-bearing parameters set by their doctor – send an alert to both the patient and doctor's devices if they load their leg incorrectly with too much or not enough weight.
The startup has already raised $1M in seed funding from med-tech investment funds and several angel investors in Ukraine. However, developing the product and getting initial investments from the med-tech industry has been a long journey for the company's 27-year-old co-founder and CTO, Lisa Voronkova.
A bioengineering expert, Voronkova's first product was the EMWatch, a smart bracelet designed to monitor users' stress levels. It was the development of this device, and the difficulties that she encountered during the process, that taught her so much about the industry – specifically, the pitfalls of creating "technology for technology's sake".
"We created a device that reads heart rate from the wrist and interprets how a person feels at that moment. It was high-standard technology, but we didn't fully understand who needed it," 27-year-old Voronkova tells ZDNet.
While the product was ultimately successful, it did not get the exposure Voronkova had hoped for. "In total, we sold tens of thousands of watches and bracelets, but not the tens and hundreds of millions needed to truly sustain EMWatch and earn its massive popularity."
Voronkova later spent some time working for the Ukrainian health ministry, including projects involving introducing digital services to the country's healthcare system.
The use of telemedicine in Ukraine has been gaining momentum since 2007, when the country's health ministry set up a state telemedicine clinical research center with the goal of establishing telemedicine systems throughout the country.
In 2020, health authorities approved the use of telemedicine in the course of routine treatments as a response to COVID-19. Voronkova co-founded ComeBack Mobility that same year, with the idea for Smart Crutch Tips inspired by what she saw in the field and patients' own experiences of using crutches after leg injuries.
"We talked a lot to orthopedists to understand whether such a device was needed and if anything similar already existed – and if so, how it worked and whether it solved the problem, or not," she says.
"It turned out that it's very much needed, but for the feet, not for the hands. It is difficult for patients to understand what it is like to load the leg by 20% or 50%, for example, and the wrong load leads to repeated health problems and additional surgery."
According to Voronkova, clinicians in Ukraine are keen to engage with digital health tools as it allows them to work with innovations that were previously unavailable. Devices like Smart Crutch Tips are particularly helpful for doctors and medical workers because they allow routine tasks to be performed more quickly. Meanwhile, consulting can be done remotely, saving time and reducing the risk of infection with COVID-19.
While Ukraine is only the starting point, Voronkova says that her startup has global ambitions.
"We started in Ukraine - the production was created here, our investors are also here – everyone is interested in us starting at home. The US market is the next stage for us, as there's a bigger market, and the business can scale much faster," she says.
"Naturally, there is also a global opportunity – leg injuries happen to hundreds of millions across the planet each year, and Smart Crutch Tips can help anyone heal faster and better."
Elsewhere across Ukraine, other med-tech startups have picked up on developing online consultation platforms.
Calmerry, a mental health and e-counselling platform that was launched in 2020, has raised $5M in investments so far. The platform offers both text and video therapy, as well as mood tracking, guided journaling prompts, worksheets, and other tools.
Bicovery is another Ukrainian startup featured on the EMERGE list, working on solutions for people with bipolar disorder. The company uses machine learning to predict disease dynamics, warn of potential manic or depressive episodes, and measure drug efficacy. There is also Esper Bionics, a Ukrainian robotics company that develops bionic hands and data-collective architecture for mechatronics.
While such examples illustrate the potential that the med-tech industry has in Ukraine, Voronkova's advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the industry is to test their ideas and research their markets as early as possible.
"After all, by itself, technology is worthless. It's only by what it gives to customers, what it enables them to do, and the problem it helps them solve. Only then your technology and idea have value."