Editor’s note: ORIGIN Conference is TechNode Global’s premier international content track about the latest development in the Southeast Asia tech and startup scene. ORIGIN Conference this year was held in Macao on May 11, as part of the BEYOND Expo Week.
The ORIGIN Conference for Advanced and Affordable Healthcare Technology presents discussions on making healthcare more accessible with the help of technology. The panel features speakers sharing their insights on the Southeast Asian healthcare industry, regulation, and opportunities.
Moderated by Vietcetera Media CEO Hao Tran, the panel discussion features Elias Pour, founder and CEO of Singapore-based telehealth company ORA; Kashish Sawalani, CTO of micro-nano design company Enlitho; and Dr. Pauline Tay, Director of the National Health Innovation Centre (NHIC) of Singapore.
The discussion started with a light conversation over the use of modern tools like ChatGPT in healthcare. It proceeded to highlight why healthcare is a leading priority for investors in Southeast Asia. Additionally, the panel pointed out the challenges and opportunities as well as the potential for innovative technologies.
Here’s a summary of the insights and ideas the speakers imparted during the discussion.
Dr. Pauline Tay, Director of National Health Innovation Centre – Singapore
Many investors I encountered tell me that Southeast Asia is a really good growth area for healthcare investments. This is because the region does not have a lot of healthcare infrastructure yet, as opposed to developed regions like Europe and the United States where facilities have already been built and systems have already been set.
In a way, healthcare investments in Southeast Asia are starting from a zero base. However, because Southeast Asians are generally technologically-enabled or tech-savvy, it is easier for new healthcare businesses to offer new products and services that allow them to leapfrog because they don’t have to go through the arduous and tedious processes others went through. This allows healthcare businesses in the region to demonstrate accelerated growth, which is very attractive to venture capitalists.
On the other hand, in addition to the point made by Elias, the young population is also attractive to investors, because these young people will eventually age. Investors looking for long-term prospects see the benefits of being among the first to put up healthcare facilities and offer that will serve patients now and in the future. For the younger population, businesses can offer preventative care. For the older ones, businesses can provide geriatric, palliative, and other forms of care services.
However, one major challenge in advancing more affordable and accessible healthcare in Southeast Asia is the lack of regulatory and policy cohesion across different countries. There were attempts to unify, but these have not been successful. It would be much easier to improve healthcare with modern technology if Southeast Asian countries manage to have consolidated, uniform, or harmonized regulations and product approval processes.
It’s difficult to pinpoint which specific countries in Southeast Asia are the best destinations for healthcare investments. What’s worth pointing out is that investors or healthcare businesses should carefully examine the different markets to see what they are particularly good at and if their fields of excellence align with what the investor is interested in. This may sound like a safe or diplomatic answer, but for now, it would be inexpedient to generalize and make recommendations without specific data on specific investment options.
Elias Pour, Founder & CEO of ORA
If you go out in the market now and you look for a lot of friction and underserved consumer groups, you will easily end up in healthcare. This is likely because of the young patient population who are from the middle class with good purchasing power and lifestyles that make them predisposed to various health issues. The healthcare sector is a highly viable option for investors, especially with the presence of US business models that have been quite successful.
Some may argue that healthcare may not be a good investment option in Southeast Asia where the population is relatively young. Not many young people require costly healthcare services. That perspective, though, is rather rearward. Potentially, around 80% of healthcare will be digitalized and brought online over the next ten years. Given that, it makes sense to optimize healthcare businesses towards the largest group of payers, who happen to be the younger generation, men and women in their 20s and 30s living in the capital cities, not their parents or older folks.
Also, it may not be accurate to say that younger people do not need a lot of healthcare. The younger generation also has a lot of healthcare needs, especially due to conditions brought about by their usually unhealthy lifestyles.
When it comes to policies and regulations, there is indeed a need for Southeast Asian countries to work together to harmonize the way they operate their healthcare systems, especially in the approval of new products and innovative solutions. Singapore has excellent healthcare regulations, which makes it a good role model the rest of the countries can follow. If Southeast Asia were to harmonize their healthcare policies and systems, it would be a good idea to follow what Singapore has been doing.
For those interested in investing in Southeast Asia’s healthcare industry, I think it would be better to look at regional opportunities to be big enough. The top country destinations for investments are Singapore and Indonesia—for now. These two countries are where capital and talent are widely available. However, the time will come when the rest of Southeast Asia will catch up.
Kashish Sawalani, Chief Technology Officer of Enlitho
Healthcare is top of mind for investors in Southeast Asia because of the region’s abundance of talent. Also, the innovation and the presence of so many research entities is amazing. Southeast Asia appears to have a lot of brilliant minds focused on healthcare from the application of AI to the healthcare setting and the production of superior healthcare-related equipment.
Our company is involved in micro-nano fabrication for healthcare applications. Its high-end and advanced-tech nature is not exactly the best example of a startup that tries to make healthcare technology more affordable and accessible. However, we can argue that our technology is actually helping make healthcare products more efficient and ultimately cheaper and more accessible to those who need them.
On the topic of the lack of harmony in healthcare regulations across Southeast Asia, I would agree that it would be better to harmonize or come up with unified systems and policies. However, based on our experience, since our products are noninvasive in nature, we actually saw similar regulations for our products in the different Southeast Asian countries we operate in. Maybe, while regulations have not been harmonized yet, investors and businesses should consider looking into sectors or niches where existing regulatory requirements and procedures are not that different.
Other than Singapore, it would be difficult to cite specific Southeast Asian countries that can be good healthcare investment destinations. Singapore remains to be the leader in healthcare policies, regulation, and investment opportunities in Southeast Asia. The other viable options are not in Southeast Asia: Japan and South Korea. There are many excellent companies in these countries that are pivoting to the booming healthcare trend. Even established companies like Sony are looking at healthcare business opportunities.
Featured image L-R: Hao Tran, CEO of Vietcetera Media; Dr. Pauline Tay, Director of the National Health Innovation Centre (NHIC) Singapore; Elias Pour, Founder & CEO of ORA; Kashish Sawalani, CEO of Enlitho
ORIGIN Conference: Capturing Southeast Asia’s Emerging Generation