EIT Health Germany Blog

How to make ideas reality: SarAI – a digital pharmaceutical solution at Startup School

With the aim of lowering healthcare system costs and reducing patient handling delay in an understaffed healthcare system, a team joined Startup School (an innovation program from hei_INNOVATION incubator of Heidelberg University) in July 2021 to get a deeper understanding of how to deliver value to patients whilst developing a viable business. Within the framework of the program, they developed a digital pharmaceutical solution, the SarAI, an oral chemotherapy bundle app to assist patients who are dealing with the posology of their medicines. We welcome Juanjiangmeng Du, Federica Fiorentino, and Hossein Ghafarian Mabhout to our blog to share their insights and experiences with the Startup School program and tell us, what they took away.


On-boarding surprise box

Why did you join Startup School?

Within the last two decades, the average life expectancy has increased by 5 years as a result of improvements in modern healthcare. At the same time, given the rapid aging population and drastic cost increase for in-hospital treatment, an efficient approach toward a smart healthcare system is in urgent need. Digital health solutions not only reduce the cost of treatment with tele-treatment but also with the use of AI algorithms, prevent the disease in the first place or diagnose at an early stage. Not only, this lowers down the cost for the healthcare system but also reduces the latency of handling the patient within an understaffed healthcare system that can not keep up with the rapidly aging population.

Designing such a solution without considering all regulatory barriers seems to be reachable. In terms of hardware or software, the current technology can enable such a solution. However, as we learned about the regulations on data and especially a sensitive data type such as patient’s data, our energy into thinking creatively drained. In order to better understand how to provide value for the patient and develop a profitable business, we joined Startup School in July 2021.


What is Startup School?

The Startup School program was designed nicely and strategically, from the surprising onboarding boxes to interactive online workshops and offline outdoor meetups which engage the participants from start to finish. This year, the program focuses on “Innovation in the Age of AI” and aims to guide participants to develop actionable solutions for real challenges. 


What did you learn?

The program covers different forms of training: sprints, workshops, and guest seminars, creating a dynamic learning environment. 

The sprints include Design thinking sprints, AI Design Sprints, and Business Model Innovation Sprints. With the help of trained coaches, we articulated clear opportunities for innovative product designs. The workshops and seminars focused on addressing entrepreneurial skills, such as networking, communication, and pitching. Over the course of the program, we also had the opportunity to interview and network with a diverse range of accomplished professionals.


What did you do?

During the STARTUP school, we formed a team of 6 people and took a healthcare challenge provided by Sanofi – developing a patient-centric solution to improve their health.

After conducting literature and market research, we decided to develop a digital pharmaceutical solution to support patients coping with the posology of their medications. We targeted breast cancer patients undergoing oral chemotherapy in our prototyping based on three reasons. First, breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women in their post-menopausal age.  Second, oral chemotherapy is becoming a preferred choice by cancer patients due to several benefits: convenience, less pain, and time-saving. Third, although the benefits reported, the efficacy of oral chemotherapy is not as high as expected due to a simple reason, forgetting to take medication, especially when the number of pills is higher in the case of co-treatments.

To target the pain point in the breast cancer treatment journey, we developed SarAI, an oral chemotherapy bundle app that offers medication reminders, chemotherapy side effect checker (e.g. vision checking), and knowledge-based decision support for the management of breast cancer. On top of that, the app can send daily motivation and share stories from similar-conditioned patients who have already defeated cancer to empower patients to confidently participate in their own care. SarAI is characterized by an age-friendly user interface backed by modern machine learning algorithms (time-series data analysis models and question-and-answering transformers). Here is a demo of SarAI on Youtube.


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Who should apply for the Startup School?   

Students and professionals who want to develop their entrepreneurial potential and creativity, while understanding how to put faith in their own ideas and how to bring the best of them while working in a team. 


What are your takeaways?

My sunflower using seeds from the surprise box

First, assembling a multi-functional team is essential. Our team members’ knowledge and soft skills are well supplemented by each other and are necessary to build the corresponding parts of the prototype. Second, integrating a willing to learn and collaborative attitude with knowledge and skills is the passport to keep improving. Third, when building digital health solutions, understanding the regulatory framework is indispensable. After being informed about current regulatory efforts in the EU, which might take more than a year for an AI regulations framework within the EU and revising the current GDPR after it can take a few more years, we saw certain inefficiencies in trying to start an AI powered solution in this space. These inefficiencies are: (1) lack of secure cloud infrastructure in the EU trusted by all healthcare stakeholders; (2) high cost of regulatory certificates and fees; (3) limitations on digital health business models due to the ethical issues surrounding patient’s data. As a result, it makes it financially extra difficult and unattractive for startups to introduce AI-powered digital innovations into the healthcare system.