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[Herald Interview] Bayer eyes Korea’s ‘deep tech’ startups for digital health care push

In the age of “digital health care,” high-tech wearables, cutting-edge medical devices and integrated apps combined with major breakthroughs in data computing and analytics capabilities are set to pave new frontiers in the health care sector.

And in the global race to take over this emerging industry, South Korea’s innovative tech startups with an expertise in so-called “deep tech” involving complex engineering skills and software expertise could gain an upper hand, according to the founding chief of German pharma giant Bayer’s digital health care startup accelerator program.

“The first thing that’s very clear about Korean startups is that they’re very ‘high-tech.’ What they do is very complex,” said Jesus del Valle Rosales, the global head of Bayer’s Grants4Apps Accelerator program, which discovers, funds and supports selected digital health care technology startups worldwide.

“Korea is obviously a very high-tech country. And this is a big advantage because in order to make high tech, you need the infrastructure, government support, money and a high-educated workforce, (all of which Korea has as an ecosystem.) This is a very clear difference to most startup countries that I’ve observed,” he said.

Jesus del Valle Rosales, global head of Bayer’s Grants4Apps Accelerator program for digital health care startups (Bayer Korea)
Jesus del Valle Rosales, global head of Bayer’s Grants4Apps Accelerator program for digital health care startups (Bayer Korea)

Del Valle Rosales was recently in Seoul to take part in an event for the Korean chapter of the Grants4Apps program, in which Bayer Korea provided co-working spaces and 12 weeks of business mentorship to three local health technology startups.

During his visit, the Bayer executive spoke with The Korea Herald to discuss the German pharma giant’s open innovation push in digital health, a nascent and fast-growing field that the industry is eying with keen interest.

Bayer launched its digital health care acceleration program at its Berlin headquarters in 2013 in a move to bring about innovation in the firm by supporting and working with high-tech health startups. Since then, the Grants4Apps program has expanded in various forms to 27 countries, including Korea.

In the case of the global program, it currently provides the selected startups 50,000 euros ($59,400) in funding as well as business execution support, guidance and mentorship from Bayer’s boardroom executives and employees.

This year, four digital health startups were selected as finalists for the Berlin program. Among them was the Seoul-based tech startup Sky Labs, which developed a ring-type wearable that tracks a person’s pulse with precision to detect signs of arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat.

According to del Valle Rosales, the former head of Bayer’s R&D IT Innovations, high-tech gadgets like Sky Labs’ smart ring and the complex software that powers it will form the core of the global digital health revolution.

“For one, remote monitoring will pave new frontiers in health care,” del Valle Rosales said, referring to Sky Labs’ core technology. “Heart monitoring required a big equipment on the chest, but now it can be done using a noninvasive device. It’s making a technology very small and highly affordable.”

Eyeing Korea’s strengths and potential in high technology, Bayer launched the Korean version of the Grants4Apps program for the first time this year in partnership with the state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

It selected three Korean health-tech startups and provided them with co-working spaces and business mentoring and consulting from Bayer Korea employees for 12 weeks.

For now, Bayer has capped the program at providing co-working spaces and business consulting to the selected startups. It is still discussing whether it will expand the program to include additional elements of acceleration, such as financial funding and tie-ins with Bayer’s business, according to del Valle Rosales.

Bayer Korea said it plans to host the Grants4Apps Korea program again next year, with improvements made based on feedback from the participants and this year’s experience.

By Sohn Ji-young (