Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 5 August 2020

CORONAVIRUS

How one woman is making her mark in health tech

Exclusive: Noor Sweid's Global Ventures led a $10m investment in Helium Health, West Africa’s largest electronic medical records provider, earlier this year

Noor Sweid, founder of Global Ventures. The company is using technology to rewrite the healthcare rule book. Courtesy: Global Ventures​​​​​​​
Noor Sweid, founder of Global Ventures. The company is using technology to rewrite the healthcare rule book. Courtesy: Global Ventures​​​​​​​

Global Ventures, a Dubai venture capital company, is evaluating further investment opportunities in the health technology sector across the Middle East and Africa region.

The coronavirus crisis will speed up the use of technology to increase access to health care, in much the same way the 2008 financial crisis prompted the online inclusion of people without access to banks, Noor Sweid, partner and founder of Global Ventures, told The National.

Ms Sweid is listed on Forbes magazine’s World’s Top 50 Women in Tech.

Healthcare regulators, insurance providers and patients in the region and other parts of the world, who have traditionally been reluctant to adopt telehealth, are now quickly seeking digital solutions to healthcare access.

“We started seeing a lot of traction in health care generally because of Covid,” Ms Sweid said.

“Over a few months, we suddenly had the three key parts of an industry go from ‘we’re not sure we like this’ to ‘can we please have this faster?’. So, with that, we saw a mass inflection point in the health-tech space and suddenly everyone is saying ‘how do you provide access for the people who don’t have it?’”

The outbreak has prompted a surge in demand for telehealth worldwide as the number of cases rise and put a strain on healthcare systems.

To ease that pressure, governments are increasingly relying on health tech start-ups to give the public access to consultations through video, telephone or text, and even have medicines prescribed and delivered.

Earlier this year, Global Ventures led a $10 million (Dh36.7m) round of investment in Nigeria’s Helium Health, West Africa’s largest electronic medical records provider.

This was Global Ventures’ first foray into the health tech sector and was a “serendipitous advantage” as the talks began in January, before the global spread of coronavirus, Ms Sweid said. Investors have combed the market for health-related businesses during the pandemic.

The venture capital company is now sharpening its focus on the health tech sector over the next six to 12 months, she said.

“For us, this is the exciting space,” Ms Sweid said.

Global Ventures has held talks with 1,400 start-ups in various sectors over the last 18 months.

“Over 350 of the 1,400 are in the healthcare space, so we believe there is massive opportunity to work with some of these founders in the health tech space to create a lot of value and address the healthcare inclusion problem that we’re seeing,” she said. “Everybody in the world should have access to a doctor if they need one and that should not be a long, arduous process.”

Ms Sweid is no stranger to the industry, having started her career as a biotechnology and pharmaceutical consultant in Boston 20 years ago.

“For us, it became about let’s just lean in more,” she said.

The Middle East and Africa region has 1.2 doctors for every 1,000 people, compared to the average of 2.9 doctors in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, a gap that must be bridged digitally.

“This is the exact same thing we saw with the financial crisis 12 years ago, which is how do you bank the unbanked digitally because you’re not going to do it by building more banks,” she said.

“Now we have a global health crisis and the question is how do you provide healthcare access digitally? Not by building more hospitals ... so we’ve seen this movie before.”

Global Ventures, which focuses on growth-stage start-ups in emerging markets, has a portfolio of 14 investments that range from FinTech to e-commerce start-ups.

The coronavirus crisis will shake up the start-up scene as more entrepreneurs come up with new ideas to deal with the problems triggered by the pandemic, such as distance learning.

“Different pain points will be identified across industries and as there is going to be an increasing amount of [money spent] in these industries, there will be a lot of demand for new ideas and solutions,” said Ms Sweid, a former chief investment officer at the Dubai Future Foundation.

“You will have entrepreneurs addressing these and growing from there, specifically in health tech and [education technology].”

The health crisis has hastened the use of technology in other sectors such education, agriculture and retail, she said.

It will also drive changes in areas such as the future of work and robotics as the pandemic creates a need to commercialise pre-existing and new technology, she said.

Asked about what action is needed to have more female investors in the regional tech industry, Ms Sweid said: “I think it is about confidence in investing and confidence in taking risk and it comes from exposure and education. I think that this is across the board in many industries.”

“The conversations need to [focus on] why women can do this and why women should do this,” she said.

Updated: July 7, 2020 02:00 AM

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