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‘There has been a large spurt in innovation’



Dr Amit Kakar, head of Novo Holdings Asia, speaks to Health Tech World about the growing potential in health tech in Southeast Asia and the role of the Novo Holdings – one of the world’s most prominent life sciences investors – in supporting that


The COVID-19 pandemic has “transformed” healthcare and life sciences in Southeast Asia with significant innovation coming to the fore in AI and digital therapeutics, the head of the most recently-created division of global investor Novo Holdings has said. 

Building on the widespread adoption of Telehealth seen during the past two years, Southeast Asia is now coming onto the global radar with its emerging presence in the use of AI in diagnostics, drug discovery, as well as in remote treatment. 

And Dr Amit Kakar, head of Novo Holdings Asia – a division of Novo Holdings which was established last year – believes the “COVID tailwind” will help to build levels of innovation and opportunity even further. 

“COVID has done two things – it has accelerated the adoption of technology, and adoption is always a wonderful thing to see, but also the innovation. In the last two years there have been some remarkable technologies discovered which have come into service very quickly, the development of the life-saving MRNA vaccine being one,” he tells Health Tech World. 

“In Southeast Asia, we are building an ecosystem here which will help patients to get the maximum coverage and there has been a large spurt in innovation in this part of the world.

“They say that necessity is the mother of invention and that has been proven in this case.”

Dr Amit Kakar

Significant further innovation is already happening in the area, with Dr Kakar pointing to the use of AI in radiology, pathology and drug discovery as having great potential. 

“AI-based technology used in imaging is fulfilling a need in Southeast East,” says Dr Kakar, who joined Novo Holdings Asia in August last year to lead investments and partnerships across the region, focusing on China, Japan, Singapore and Southeast Asia. 

“There is a mismatch between a large population and numbers of radiologists. Traditionally, a radiologist will look at 100 X-rays each day, the majority of which are normal, so they will spend the majority of their time evaluating normal X-rays. If the tools were out there to eliminate those, that would make life much easier.

“Similarly, there is a dearth of pathologists, and while it is early days, there is work being done to help AI read the pathology slides and help elaborate on what a pathologist is looking for.

“In drug discovery, it can take years to go from early stage to late stage then commercialisation, but with the data available from years and years of clinical research, AI could support the transition from discovery to clinical trial phase. AI technology could be of a lot of use here.”

In digital therapeutics too, there is great potential for Southeast Asia, says Dr Kakar, who has more than 25 years of experience of working in senior healthcare roles. 

“In the US and Europe this has been ongoing for a while, but we to look at how we can manage the step-down of patients who are discharged home and need treatment,” he says. 

“The role of insurers is very pivotal in that, in ensuring the quality of care at home is better or equivalent to in hospital. IoT devices are also pivotal in enabling more patients to be home-based and AI-based tools can be of help there too.”

Home-based monitoring has of course come to the fore over the past two years, with the unrelenting rise of Telehealth enabling the remote support of millions of people worldwide. 

Novo Holdings, known for its support of life science businesses on a global scale, has recently made its first Southeast Asian investments through its support of two Telehealth businesses which have scaled and responded to the unprecedented demand during the pandemic, enabling them to expand their presence further. 

Halodoc is a digital healthcare platform which enables people across Indonesia to have live virtual consultations with more than 20,000 licensed doctors at any time, in which Novo was part of an $80million Series C round; and Doctor Anywhere, an omni-channel healthcare company which brings together in-person consultations with remote support through the mobile app, and which supports people across Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Novo was part of a $65.7million Series C round. 

“There has been a reluctance in the past to use Telehealth but COVID has accelerated that process of adoption. It was already happening in the US, with insurers using Telehealth so that people don’t always physically have to go and see a doctor. It was talked about in Asia, but then when COVID came along there was no choice,” says Dr Kakar. 

“Telehealth has given access and affordability to a lot of countries in this part of the world, the emerging economies.”

Halodoc is working with 25million people across Indonesia, although the need for greater support continues against a population of close to 300million. 

“The biggest concentration of people is in the cities, but even if you step outside Jakarta access to healthcare, and the ability to get healthcare on time, is challenging. The traffic congestion and waiting times can take hours and then there is the COVID backlog,” says Dr Kakar. 

“But it is not just the ease of teleconsultations, this is very important in terms of greater access and affordability in an emerging market.”

Doctor Anywhere focuses on the in-person aspect of care alongside digital offering, and is in operation with 1.5million people across Southeast Asia, excluding Indonesia. 

“It made sense for them not just to have an online portal, as COVID recedes some people using online might want to go back and see their doctor in person, but the online channel has grown very well during COVID,” sats Dr Kakar. 

The adoption of Telehealth and its demonstrable impact means it will continue to play a significant role in healthcare going forward, says Dr Kakar.

“Once COVID starts to abate, we will still see a lot of people using these platforms, it will benefit people in the long run. That’s where I see the post-COVID world,” he says. 

“People will of course still need to visit in-person if they need digital imaging, a CT scan or X-ray, or if it is an acute emergency, but if you are a chronic disease patient, many are confident being managed at home. The quality of the care has been proven and we have good devices, management and affordability. 

“Insurance companies have a pivotal role to play in this, so there are cost-effective policies which enable them to help better manage those patients.”

For Novo Holdings, it is keen to continue to lend its support to dynamic healthtech businesses, typically in a Series B or Series C round, but in a way where its support on a global scale can be valuable beyond the investment itself. 

“We are not just a vanilla capital investor, we look at what kind of synergy there is, what kind of value can we add. We are plugged into the ecosystem here and look at how we can take them to the next goal,” says Dr Kakar. 

“They have to rack and stack at global level, their technology will end up competing across the globe sooner or later, so it allows us to look at the technology, what they have, what they are missing, and what advantage we can add. 

“Our platforms are trying to get into specialist services – one of our investments in the US is Noom, a weight management platform, so we are looking how we can add in Noom services, or maybe in time whether we can partner with Noom. 

“Another value we offer is that while a company may be in Southeast Asia but they are working in or targeting the US market, we are very happy to connect with our team in the US, that is a seamless transition. With one biotech company, Hummingbird, they were headquartered in Singapore, but were looking to file R&D in the US. We knew them well and made a partnership between our teams in Asia and the US to invest in this company. 

“We will continue to invest and are super excited about what lies ahead. We are in touch with all the emerging technologies as they shape up and grow, and will look for the opportunities that continue to emerge.”

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