Cluj’s universities gather their forces to put the city’s healthcare innovation on the European map

Students from the big four universities of Cluj-Napoca, working on their idea during the Innovation Days by EIT Health, 1-2 November 2019.

In a first of a kind move in the academic history of the city, the big four universities of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, gathered their forces to organize Innovation Days (iDays), an innovathon dedicated to healthcare, which took place in Cluj between 1-2 November 2019. This is the first time such an event was organized by all the big universities in Cluj as equal partners, bringing together their knowledge in the benefit of the patients, the healthcare system and the community as a whole. Cluj-Napoca (often referred to simply as Cluj) is the unofficial capital of Transylvania and one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe, a cultural center, an academic hub, and of one the most important innovation hubs of the country.

The participating universities were Babes-Bolyai University (UBB), the University of Medicine and Pharmacy (UMF), the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine (USAMV), and the Technical University (UTCN), with the support of the Liver Research Club and the Student Entrepreneurship Association “Iuliu Hațieganu”. The 8 hours long innovathon was part of the EIT Health iDays, an event which took place in 31 locations within several countries across Europe, during which students met to develop and present their digital health projects. The event aims to show how innovative ideas targeting the health sector can be transformed into real life projects, with impact on the patients and the healthcare system. During the program, students are presented with practical tools for health innovation and work in multidisciplinary teams to address real health challenges.

iDays is a unique annual series of events designed to promote innovation in healthcare among students, through a 2 day program conducted within academic institutions in Europe. The event was held in some of the top universities in Europe, like Oxford and Imperial College in the UK or the University of Tartu in Estonia (ranked as one of the best in Eastern Europe). Romania is one of the 20 EU countries where iDays were organized this year, with the support of FreshBlood HealthTech Community, the EIT Health RIS hub for Romania. EIT Health is an European network of 140 leading medical, pharmaceutical, technology companies, research institutions and universities, supported by the European Union.

Making an impact together

Pitching during iDays 2019 in Cluj.

The host of the event, UMF, already had a group which was working on innovation and digital health, but decided to co-organize this event when they noticed that within their incubator they were lacking the know-how from the technical part or some other input that could be complimented from people with different backgrounds, more likely to be found in this kind of competitions.

“I think it’s a first step of bringing all the universities on the same table and to actually realize that we have the knowledge to properly impact our communities.”, said Radu Pirlog, PhD student at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy, member of the jury and representative of university hosting the event.

While for the universities its important to know each other, to see what kind of projects they are each involved in and to apply together for funding to support their research and innovation, from the point of view of the innovation ecosystem, there is a big need to put together the research part with the practical aspects of the research, to create a link between the academia and the startups environment ecosystem, and the students are seen as having a great potential, as they can be a link between these two, as they are more open minded and more eager to develop their ideas.

“I believe that’s the role of universities, as hubs and accelerators of knowledge producing, and I believe we need to move into to the next steps, not just doing business as usual, doing education, as we did until now, but we need to step it up, to actually push the students to face real life problems and try to generate real life solutions”, said Razvan Chereches, professor of Public Health at Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj.

During the event, the students formed multidisciplinary teams (with medical, technical or economic backgrounds) and tried to solve real healthcare challenges, focusing on the medical care outside the hospital, at home. To address the challenges, they used their business skills and digital health ideas, while mentors with experience in the field of healthcare innovation helped them build their projects. At the end of the event, the teams presented their ideas and were judged by a group of experts who used standardized scoring criteria to award the best teams.

“For students I think it’s really important to see that they get support, and that the faculty acknowledges them, their potential in doing more than learning in different classes, on taking exams. For our faculty this is really important because if they succeed, we succeed.”, said Adina Rus, from the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj, and member of the jury at iDays Cluj.

Bringing change by addressing real life problems

Working on ideas during iDays 2019 in Cluj.

The jury chose as the winner of the competition a project called Simply Care, a personal health assistant, a wristband that will give advice based on the condition of the patient. Simply Care targets old people which don’t understand their disease and need support in a situation where the medical doctors don’t always have time to follow them and to give them explanation on a day to day basis. 

“It was really nice to make something really from nothing, in just one day. It was a lot of pressure, because you have to do a lot of research, to be sure that your solutions attacks the problem, and it’s relevant and a strong one. And you have only one day to build a business, which is really hard, but also exhilarating when you succeed.”, said Beniamin Matei from the winning team of the iDays Cluj, with project Simply Care.

The winning team will participate to the Winners Event, which will take place in Paris on December 1st, 2019, where they will meet with colleagues from all the participating universities. During the event in Paris, the students will be provided with support and resources to further develop their ideas and will also receive additional training in innovation methodology.

“We have a lot of work to do, in food, in health, in public services. We have to change a lot of things, and with this involvement of the students, we can do more for the community of Cluj, and our region.”, said Lucian Cuibus, from the University of Agriculture, Food and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj.

The civil society creates the glue of the innovation ecosystem

Dr. Ion Petrovai, from FreshBlood, a Cluj based NGO which supports health-related startups, has become one of the main catalysts of innovation in healthcare in the region

As EIT Health is trying to establish and promote the cooperation between universities and industry, the significant glue for an ecosystem to foster innovation is seen as the self organized element of the ecosystem, the civil society. And this is where Cluj, compared to other regions of Romania and even compared to other cities in the CEE, makes a significant difference, by having a good cohesion between the key players of the ecosystem, mostly because the vibrancy of its civil society. This makes the whole communication between the partners not about what is in the research department of the universities, or what is in the technology departments of the industry, but it’s building up from the actual needs of the market, which are the patients, which is the unmet need, where the whole ecosystem should be built around.

“I believe that innovation is about private individuals and Cluj happens to have some very strong, very dedicated private individuals. That’s one of the most important factors for innovation, because if you don’t have dedicated private people who have the ambition to make the system better, then it will not work. The civil society is very present in Cluj and I am missing this one, even in my own ecosystem in Budapest, because that is the glue, that is what is taking the whole system together, the catalyst, which makes it move. Everybody is very happy in the status quo, and everybody knows the change is painful, change is difficult, change will help some, and change will deprive some from the rights from the status and everything, but change is inevitable, the digital has come, up on our necks, you cannot resist it, so it’s better just to get in front and just start a change”, said Marton Kis, Health Innovation Expert from the Semmelweis University, Budapest.

FreshBlood, a Cluj based NGO which aims to support health-related startups is now seen by most of the key players in the local ecosystem as the main catalyst for healthcare innovation, and an expression of the involvement of the local civil society. FreshBlood is also one of the hubs of the EIT Health in Romania, and in May 2019 has become connected to the European Connected Health Alliance, a European network of ecosystems, forming the regional network Transylvania Digital Health Ecosystem, with the purpose of increasing the quality of the regional health services, through European collaboration and technology. The vision of the Transylvanian Digital Health Ecosystem is to become a dedicated healthcare focused innovation accelerator for Eastern Europe. 

A win – win situation for the universities, the students, the patients, the local community, and the businesses

Students, mentors and judges, coming together at the end of the iDays 2019 in Cluj.

For the universities, an event like iDays brings visibility and new opportunities for collaborations, both with the local and international partners, while for the students it brings opportunities to work in an multidisciplinary environment, opening their minds, finding new ways of approaching their ideas of healthcare. For the students of medicine in particular, events like this makes them understand what healthcare is outside of the patients and outside of the disease, by approaching healthcare in a more holistic way. For the local community the hope is that some of the ideas that are going to be generated in such events, can be applied in the future, for the benefit of the community.

“I think for the local community, it offers an opportunity for students to innovate. Students need events where they can innovate. An event that’s taking place each year, can have a good impact on community because some of the ideas can be can can become startups, real products on the market, and this is something interesting for community, to have their own products, which are innovative and started from here from Cluj.”, said Valentin Sita from the Technical University of Cluj.

Thinking of EIT Health, its main mission and vision, to facilitate the conversion of the research and the conversion of the technology of research of universities and technology and product scopes of industry, for long time, due to a rusty mentality, this two tended to speak in parallel, not matching their ideas, not getting into actual production. That’s why for the ecosystem it’s important to catalyze the transition and the communication, and to put into the scope the actual need of the patient, the unmet need, so that the two main players, the academia and the industry, can align, and the final result to become useful and sustainable.

As a next step for the ecosystem, the idea of a healthcare innovation incubator in Cluj is starting to take roots, and has attracted supporters from outside Romania too. Roel Kamerling, managing coordinator for public-private innovation programs at the Technical University of Delft (TU Delft), the Netherlands is one of them. During a visit to assess the health innovation ecosystem of Cluj, Roel endorsed the idea of creating a innovation incubator in Cluj, a place where startups from the HealthTech area could develop, receive support and get connections to relevant partners, based on the model of the YES!Delft incubator, ranked the best business incubator affiliated with a university in Europe, according to the UBI Ranking, and number 2 in the world.

For Cluj, the future of innovation looks bright, as Razvan Chereches sees the ecosystem strongly coming together, and the universities transforming themselves and becoming a force for innovation in the city: “In Cluj we have the ferment for a real culture of innovation. There are a lot of forces are coming together and they’re starting to complement each other. We have a chance here to transform the university into what it was meant to be initially: integrating the community and pushing the community forward.”.

Founder, editor in chief of Startups&TheCity.