Imagine being Christopher Columbus in the fifteenth century who dreamt of exploring a new trade route from Europe to the East Indies and Japan. It was well-known that he was embarking on a risky but profitable voyage that may or may not change the course of history. For his journey to succeed, however, several conditions had to be met. He needed to: 1) demonstrate that it would be useful and profitable; 2) generate enough support to fund the journey in terms of ships, crew members, supplies, and food; 3) ensure that the timing of the journey would align with current needs in Europe; 4) demonstrate that he was the right person to lead; 5) be able to recruit the right crew members for the journey; and 6) ensure that the right legislation was in place to allow him to sail.
I often use the above example to demonstrate to my students that their startup dreams, as entrepreneurs, must be backed by data, and that the entrepreneur’s personal drive can help develop external aptitude. Just as in Columbus’s case, the correct “ecosystem” is needed to support the journey: finance, the art of building ships, legislation, experienced sailors and leaders, and the right timing for the project.Nowhere in the startup world is this more apparent than in the medical innovation world. Medical innovation is risky, expensive, and time-consuming. It requires a strong ecosystem and adherence to regulatory standards.
Every year, thousands of Palestinians graduate from medical schools in Palestine and abroad. The medical profession is considered one of the most respected and prestigious in the Palestinian community. Almost every family would be proud to call their son or daughter a doctor. If not a medical doctor, then perhaps a medical scientist, a biomedical engineer, or a pharmaceutical developer, among other professions. However, despite the enormous number of medical professionals, the development of new and innovative pharmaceuticals, digital health tools, or medical devices is very close to zero.
When I created my medical device startup company, SynergyMed, rather than recruiting a crew, I had to build one from scratch, as the art of developing medical devices is almost nonexistent in Palestine. SynergyMed developed a medical device to treat solid cancer tumors as an alternative or adjuvant treatment to surgery. After developing the first prototype, I managed to find an animal testing laboratory at Birzeit University near Ramallah where, with little help, we carried out the testing procedures. The results were exceptional.
The next stage of development was to perform what is known as first-in-human studies at a hospital. Palestinian medical oncologists loved to be on board and saw this as a great opportunity to be part of a new scientific work and publication that could be attributed to local development. However, we were surprised to learn that the Palestinian Ministry of Health does not even have a protocol for conducting clinical studies. In order to carry out the studies, we would have to develop a protocol from scratch, which could take years.Clinical studies in the United States or Europe require millions of dollars. Therefore, the next phase was to look for substantial investments from medical venture capital firms, which are also nonexistent in Palestine. As a result, the company is working on product development locally with Palestinian talent and looking to raise funds, perform clinical trials, and grow abroad.The risk-tolerant mindset required to discover a “new world” is still being developed. Not only in Palestine. The Arab world favors startups that imitate a working business model in the West and is less interested in breakthrough innovations. These they can buy with the oil money from the West.The whole world is moving towards supporting a startup-driven economy. Startups are considered a driving force for innovation because multinational, large corporations are more rigid in their structure. With over 900 unicorns (startup companies that are valued at over a billion dollars) to date, it is no wonder that startups are seen as an attractive asset in many countries throughout the world. In addition, startups and small businesses create more than 80 percent of the jobs in developed countries. The time is ripe for the Palestinian community to take matters more seriously when it comes to startups as well as innovation. It is time to take entrepreneurship from a social-media, happy-photo exercise to actually taking concrete steps to build a viable entrepreneurial ecosystem. This time, it is not about infrastructure. We need to focus on building the individual.
SynergyMed envisioned product for treating localized cancer tumors. Mechanical design made by engineer Saed Shweiki.
The following steps are needed to move the startup ecosystem into a better phase. 1) We must create an immediate task force of qualified personnel completely devoted to boosting the startup ecosystem. The semi-casual meetings that have been taking place are insufficient. 2) We must restructure the education system in schools and universities, utilizing the new approach of instilling in the students a spirit of research and development and removing them from the traditional “memorize the information” methodology. 3) We must make it possible for talented Palestinian entrepreneurs, company leaders, business development experts, scientists, and engineers who live abroad to return to Palestine and offer them significant financial incentives and positions. 4) We must train successful businesspeople in investing in risky but promising startups where, if successful, the profit is exponentially higher than in traditional businesses. 5) We must create local government grants that are designed to support breakthrough innovative technologies for startups and help them make traction in order to minimize the risk for investors. The grants should be substantial and include salaries for the startup team and not just money to buy equipment or pay for a few services. 6) We must create effective startup sandbox communities that are designed to help test and develop scalable ideas and rapidly create minimum viable products with a strong product-to-market fit.Sailing will not always be smooth, but the Palestinian community has seldom seen a calm blue ocean. It is ready to find its own pathway towards a new world.