The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has catalyzed the digital transformation in the health care sector. As part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan, NEOM, the Kingdom’s futuristic smart city and Vision’s centerpiece, has an unprecedented opportunity to become the first health technology (health tech) capital of the world, and a global hub for innovation and cooperation in health and wellness technology.
This year will be recalled in the history of health tech as the equivalent of a decade of digital transformation, such is the speed with which the sector is responding to demand at every level. The COVID-19 pandemic has given health tech companies the chance to show what they are able to do, and accelerated the uptake of digital health solutions in ways hitherto unseen. The technologies being developed, tested and rolled out today are helping not only in the present, but will shape the future of health care across the world for years.
Even before COVID-19, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region’s young, digitally savvy population had already showed a readiness to embrace artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics for their health care needs. According to a 2017 PwC report titled “What doctor? Why AI and robotics will define New Health,” two-thirds of Middle Eastern and North African consumers said they were willing to replace human clinicians with AI and robots, with the highest proportion, 66 percent, in Saudi Arabia.
The region already fosters a number of homegrown champions, such as Saudi-born Nala, the region’s fastest-growing health tech company and the world’s first AI platform to offer instant access to medical diagnoses in Arabic. With health care being one of the strategic pillars of Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program, Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to offer the world its first true health tech capital at NEOM.
From laboratories specializing in stem cell therapy to innovation centers studying the human genome project, NEOM is ushering in a new era of modern medicine, leading to countless effective treatments and therapies. From companies leading the way in remote monitoring and tele-health, to innovative AI-powered assessment apps and platforms, meanwhile, the world is witnessing an unprecedented upsurge of momentum in the health tech sector, which represents a unique opportunity for Saudi Arabia and NEOM’s model for the new future.
The Future Investment Initiative (FII) Institute, as a key forum for coordination of policy and action within the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals, has a strategic role to play in shaping Saudi Arabia’s path toward becoming a global health tech hub. Initiatives such as the recent “Beyond The Crisis: Technology to the Rescue” series demonstrate its role as the curator of the global conversation on some of the most pressing issues of our time. Yet it is at NEOM where the Kingdom possesses an extraordinary platform to showcase global innovations that blend health care, well-being and technology together in a way that pushes the boundaries of what is possible.
NEOM’s futuristic model, that includes the presence of major tech-driven companies, represents a vast opportunity to host a major health tech hub and attract not only innovative entrepreneurs from across the GCC but also from across the world. It also offers the opportunity to showcase and scale-up the increasing number of domestic champions such as Sihatech, the Riyadh-based health care tech start-up that offers a cloud-based Hospital Information System to support the digitization efforts of the National Digital Transformation Unit and the Saudi Ministry of Health. NEOM is the key to cementing Saudi Arabia’s position as a health tech hub and provides a magnet for the talent needed to foster it.
The proposed NEOM HealthTech Hub will see year-long initiatives built around partnerships and collaboration agreements with other research institutions such as the Center of Excellence for NEOM Research at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. FII, an annual conference which has now become an institute for innovation, had a strong message at last year’s global summit: We are open for innovation.
Roxana Mohammadian-Molina is an adviser to tech companies across the GCC, and chief strategy officer and board member at London-based financial technology company Blend Network. A former banker at Morgan Stanley in London, she now sits on the board of Women in Finance 2020 and focuses on investing in, growing, and advising tech companies.