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Rockstart, the Amsterdam-based startup accelerator, ventures outside the capital city. Its digital health accelerator program will set up camp at Novio Tech Campus in the Nijmegen startup cluster: The deadline for applications closes on July 19th. In the Amsterdam canal house that Rockstart calls home, I meet with the program director and brain behind the program: Maarten den Braber.  

Rockstart and digital health

“On the one hand digital health is about using technology to make care independent of time and place, and thus easier. On the other hand it’s health care that bases itself on personal data rather than on the physical practice. This means it’s about health in the broadest sense, and tends to focus on prevention rather than cure.” Maarten and Oscar Kneppers (founder of Rockstart) met each other in San Francisco while on excursion with DutchBasecamp and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. “Oscar was looking towards doing a Rockstart program in health, I was already working in digital health. So our paths naturally merged from there. Rockstart likes to add value to a sector that can truly profit from technology. When it comes to applying that to socially relevant issues health is an obvious choice.” 

Health Valley of the Netherlands 

Rockstart’s website claims that Nijmegen and surroundings are “known as the Health Valley of The Netherlands; Europe’s most connected digital health ecosystem.” When I ask Maarten to illustrate this claim some beautiful examples follow. Like ParkinsonNet, a format that unites caregivers specialised in Parkinson to collectively treat a patient. “The format has been licensed by Kaiser Permanente, one of the biggest health insurance companies of the US, in a time-span much shorter than a traditional sales cycle.” Then there’s Gociety, which developed a software shell enabling elderly people to easily use digital technology like phones or tablet, they were invited by Aging 2.0 and Google to develop their product in the US. Also, there’s Focus Cura, a company that innovates the way (elderly) patients and caregivers can communicate through technology and have created an eco-system of users. What these examples illustrate are the short lines of communication in the Netherlands and how easily knowledge and connections are exchanged here. “In the Netherlands you can gain access to various organisational layers with great ease. These businesses were successful precisely because they were developed and launched in the Netherlands because you don’t have to work your way through seven states, forty companies, and all kinds of offices like in the United States.” 

Dutch testbed makes for ideal launchpad

Just how well connected the Dutch health valley is, is illustrated by the accelerator program itself. “The testbed for innovation in health care is very specific. We have created a network of partners like the Radboud University medical center, who can provide resources for all kinds of questions. Rockstart is a broker as it were, between the demand of startups and supply of the health care market. But we also know how to bring in content on topics like crowdfunding, security, regulations.” Maarten explains that although these connections are possible because the Netherlands is small with excellent infrastructure, success depends on thinking bigger. “There are two kinds of people: those who think the Netherlands is big enough, and those who know the Netherlands is small. The latter realize the Netherlands is an excellent launchpad, from where you should build with an international focus in mind. At Rockstart we believe in being an ‘international born company’: make your product in such a way that it can be used by anyone, anywhere in the world.” 

Network of investors

“We have created a fund through numerous investments with which we invest in our participating startups. Digital health investors differ from investors in the web and mobile accelerator program.. We excel in combining the health care investor network with the tech investment network, since digital health always has a tech component. This network is a great advantage because it allows for co-operation and shared risk.”

Talent: high profile prospects 

“There are two ways we find talent for our accelerator program. One is through monitoring what happens in the world of health care and startups, keeping an eye on competitions, hackatons and universities. The second is through our network of mentors and ambassadors. Who do they think are suitable? In this way we find high profile suspects, people who really want to make a change and join our program through personal references. Digital health is a niche sector, in which we look for talent on a global scale. The fortunate thing about operating in a niche is that our participants are serious since they need specific resources.” And that’s where the most-connected digital health eco-system comes full circle: “our program delivers amazing innovations to health care organizations, connecting them to the top pick of startups.”

NB: Rockstart has recently announced a Global Ambassador Network for Digital Health to support startups. Read more here.