Jessica Veldhuizen Bos

A New Frontier of Health Innovation: Sitting Down with Rockstart Health’s Program Director

The next level of health innovation

In the four years since developing the first Digital Health program, Rockstart has honed their vision, refined their offerings, hired capable and experienced leaders and mentors, and ultimately taken what was formerly known as “Digital Health” to an elevated level. Part of the program’s overall success and advancement comes from the addition of their Program Director, Akshat Kshetrapal at the end of 2017. He joined the team after having started his career as an entrepreneur, building one of India’s first carbon emission finance companies. Throughout the nine years before joining Rockstart, Kshetrapal had made seed, venture, growth-stage and late-stage investments in Asia, Europe, and North America arming him with direct experience in market funding and startup strategy. In this article, Kshetrapal shares his insights on what he is expecting out of this year’s revamped Health program, what he learned from the previous programs, and why he thinks the new accelerator is a first-of-its-kind prospect for startups looking to tap into a notoriously fickle market. 

The necessary developments 

In reviewing the learnings from the previous three years of the Digital Health program, Kshetrapal swiftly realized one major bottleneck particular to the healthcare industry: time. Or rather, the suffocating restraint of it. Kshetrapal reveals, “Typically, in the FinTech world, what a startup can do in three months takes 12 months in healthcare. The reason why that happens is that there are multiple stakeholders involved in any decision in healthcare, more so than in FinTech or in a consumer company, and therefore, every stage that the startup has to go through, in healthcare it’s going to take more time.” The response to this obstacle was abundantly clear: extend the duration of the program. The new Rockstart Health program is now the longest program of its kind in Europe, running for a total of 12 months, and giving the startups more room to grow. Though it may be longer, the program still provides all the benefits of a traditional accelerator, but with a time frame more curated to the industry’s restrictions. 

A notable factor in delivering a longer runway for startups unearths another critical necessity: more funding. In this regard, every startup who now joins the program will get 20k cash, and six months down the line, they will get a chance to earn a portion of a 300k fund should they perform well and adhere to the program rules. This amount is significantly more than most other programs, as Kshetrapal and the Rockstart team aim to reward the startups for their efforts while allowing them to display their progress. 

Though Rockstart has always had a solid foundation of mentors, investors, and partners, healthcare startups require direct market access. Without the data, patients, and insight into the medical world, the startups are left to devise their solutions without concrete, fact-based input, and evidence. Healthcare is somewhat of an insular industry, lending to its circuitous Catch-22 — medical professionals need innovation and invention, but those willing to help need the medical professional’s network and insight to be able to provide the best possible solutions to their problems. It was through this learning that the Health Leadership program was born. The program, which will run simultaneously alongside the Health program, is intended to benefit the involved corporations. On the benefits, Kshetrapal expands, “In this case, when the startups work with corporates to co-develop these solutions, then the acceptance is much larger. We expect that out of this program, the startups will come out with their first customership with a corporate partner, and the partner will receive the solution they’ve been pursuing.” The direct result is an active, constructive startup and a satisfied corporate partner. 

Startups need to be painkillers, not vitamins

With a new program strategy comes new requirements for startups. When assessing what kind of startups will best benefit and fit within the new standards of the program, Kshetrapal states, “We’re looking for startups that are post-validation. That could be in the form of revenue, which is the easiest, but because this is in the form of healthcare that could be pilots, collaborations, and some of those forms, but the strongest is revenue. Which basically means you’re solving a problem that someone wants to be solved. The paradigm here is you can either be a painkiller or a vitamin. Vitamins are good for you and we all like to have vitamins. But when you’re really in pain then you need the painkiller. So the startups need to be a painkiller. They need to be solving a problem, not just making something better.” 

Why the Netherlands is an ideal home for healthcare 

It’s no secret that startups need the right ecosystem to truly prosper. When pressed for why he finds the Netherlands an ideal home for healthcare startups, Kshetrapal revealed, “The city of Nijmegen is an especially good place for healthcare. But let me start that point off with the Netherlands in general. Our regulators in healthcare have to be cautious. So you know, in the startup world we say, ‘Fuck it, ship it. Get shit done.’ But in healthcare, if you ‘fuck it, ship it’ then people die. So you can’t apply the standard templates of shipping out products and improving on the ball.” 

The intricate web of networks and rules to abide by in healthcare are what makes the industry so complicated, but according to Kshetrapal, the Netherlands has a rather favorable trio of justifications that are conducive to abetting innovation in healthcare. He further affirms, “In healthcare, you need to work indirectly — which means, you need to work around regulations. Therefore, regulators are very crucial. We’ve seen, compared to any regulator in the world — I’m talking developed countries — The FDA, the NHS — The Dutch regulator is actually very proactive. And we’re fortunate to be able to work very closely with the VVS — the ministry of health, sports and wellness. So in normal health, their thinking is very progressive and that’s something you get in the Netherlands: A very progressive regulator. The second thing in the Netherlands that you get is everyone speaks English — it’s very universal, it’s very inclusive in that sense. Thirdly, from a cultural perspective, I think there’s a very strong orientation towards being inventive and being open to new ideas, so that ties in very well to our program, too.” 

The city of Nijmegen, where the health program operates, lies in the east of the small, but technologically advanced country. With its proximity to the German border, the Health program’s headquarters is neighboring the major German pharmaceutical region, which has led investments in clinical research and development in Europe, while only sitting behind the US on a global scale. In addition to its advantageous geographical location, the program boasts healthy relationships with Radboud University and Medical Centre, Sint Maartenskliniek, Health Valley, and many prominent health organizations who are keen to fuel the health startup launchpad. 

Why accelerate at all?

Entrepreneurs are remarkably driven, focused individuals. Though too often are they caught up in being individuals — that is, singularly focused on their passion and reluctant to accept help. Kshetrapal was an entrepreneur; he understands the mindset. Which is why he understands why some founders may be hesitant to join an accelerator. He divulges, “Why do startups even need accelerators? Here’s why: You have a fine innovation, and you’re doing quite well and you continue to do quite well. But what most startups fail to realize is that there are often other startups in better-funded economies — like the US or Canada — which will have the same idea, maybe a little bit inferior execution, but because they’re better-funded markets, they will be able to scale and become the global standard in the world. And then some of the European startups start playing catchup to those startups. What we want to do is we want to enable startups to accelerate their growth so that they get there faster so that they can become the gold standard and are not at such a disadvantage compared to some of the better-funded ideas.” In terms of accelerators, Rockstart has spent the last eight years honing its strategies and developing its position as a global leader. Now, the culmination of all the previous learnings has elapsed into an exceptional, first of its kind program. Much like the startups it aims to attract, the new Health program is here to prove that it can be the gold standard of healthcare accelerators.

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