From investing in startups to virtual reality, Sheba Medical Center spearheads medical innovation

By Eliana Robbins

Sheba Medical Center last month launched its ambitious ARC (accelerate, redesign, collaborate) network innovation project, which will foster cooperation between hospitals, startups, and large companies in information and other areas.

“When we began planning the innova-tion center, we realized several things,” explained Sheba Medical Center deputy director general, chief medical officer, and chief innovation officer Dr. Eyal Zimlichman. “We don’t just respond to the needs of external companies and the ideas that doctors at the center bring to us on their own initiative. We deliberately promote innovation.

“In contrast to the conservative image that health systems sometimes have, we at Sheba decided to deliberately promote any digital health solution found to be worthwhile. The idea is to become part of the changes in medicine that we’ll be seeing in the coming decade, and to use creative means to solve problems — such as long wait times for tests in hospitals, errors, and a whole range of needs of which we in the health system are well aware.”

Dr. Zimlichman said that ARC came about through the realization that change shouldn’t come through an internal development team. “There are far more suitable players, but they require a close partnership with us. And we saw that it has to be so close that it’s best if they operate right within our campus, so that they obtain maximum exposure to our resources — mainly specialists, information, and the trial site.”

The key word, according to Zimlichman, is partnership. “At ARC, the participants are not only concerned with their own interests. We give start-ups what they need, so that they’ll meet my needs and those of the hospital,” he explained.

How it works

Companies selected by Sheba Medical Center and companies created at the hospital can take up residence on the ARC campus: 35,000 square meters in five buildings (two are already ready). “We save them having to rent space from WeWork in Tel Aviv by offering them a place here, close to everything they need,” said Zimlichman.

Twenty startups are already active at ARC, most of them located on the site. They will work together with the hospital’s innovation projects, either independently or in cooperation with international companies. “We hear from the startups that their development processes were significantly sped up since they moved here. What used to take several months now takes only two months,” Zimlichman claimed.

In return for access to the hospital’s data and infrastructure through spe-cially designed mechanisms aimed at making sure that the hospital team is really cooperating with the ven-ture, the hospital receives royalties on sales of the products. “The start-ups love this model, because if they don’t have sales, they don’t pay,” Zimlichman said.

“We have two tracks. One is development within the campus of ideas arriving in an initial stage and obtaining development funding from a philanthropic fund. The ideas come from the hospital and our partners from the academia, the world of healthcare, and the IDF. In the other track, mature startups come to us.”

The partnerships created are both local and international, and what’s exciting is that it’s already happening. “In recent weeks, we heard from several important international sources, international drug companies and health systems, who said they’ve begun considering collaboration with ARC, or have already begun collaborating,” said Zimlichman.

“The network we created includes hospitals, such as Stanford University Medical Center, Mayo Clinic, and Massachusetts General Hospital. We already have 15 like these, as well as large drug and medical device companies: Boston Scientific, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck AstraZeneca. We decide in which field we want to cooperate, and brainstorm together. For example, we’re developing a cardiology product with Mayo Clinic. This collaboration came about when our doctor was doing a residency with them. He thought of an idea there, came back here, and we conceived of the product as a joint project. It will go on the market next year.”

In this case, the product is not a dig-ital health project, but a typical medical device for ablation surgery. Still, the track can be the same. Before ARC was founded, the product would have had to pass through Sheba’s commer-cialization company. That is actually the plan now, as well, only that the commercialization company has also become part of the network, and its name will have ARC in it.

“Another form of cooperation with international hospitals is installing a product developed by a startup in the ARC project, after it was already installed at Sheba. The hospital can benefit from the experience of Sheba’s medical staff in working on the project, and also sometimes from a grant from the Israel Innovation Authority for installing Israeli digital health tech-nology in hospitals,” Zimlichman said.

According to Zimlichman, drug companies give the center R&D budgets in order to solve problems. “For example, a company that developed an intravenous ultrasound product, IVUS, encountered a problem — cardiologists don’t know how to read an ultrasound — they have no experience in it. So the company asked our digital health team to build a user interface layer on the ultrasound that would analyze it the way that cardiologists are used to seeing information.”

Startups also come from all over the world. “A German startup aiming at the US market came to us, but its R&D is located at Sheba, and it employs Israelis. We now also have Italian and Swiss projects, and we may also get a US one,” Zimlichman said.

Zimlichman said that Sheba is also part of the trend towards introducing virtual reality and aug-mented reality in hospitals. “In 2020, we’ll turn Sheba into a hospital based on virtual reality. Products in this area will be used for both training the staff and enriching the operating theater with imaging and new approaches to information, and directly with patients in order to treat pain without pain relievers, and to treat depression and anxiety.”