In Finland, health technology benefits from research investment and a culture of collaboration, as the former Minister of Economic Affairs details here
When it comes to health technology, Finland is said to be among the three strongest economies in the world, with digital health being its largest high-tech export. Innovations in healthcare play a vital role in developing new treatments to help people live normal lives in spite of illness or health issues. In October last year, Former Minister of Economic Affairs in Finland, Olli Rehn, spoke about the Finnish government’s actions to “boost the health industry growth”.
Speaking at a symposium for brain diseases, Rehn said: “Finland has invested in health-related science, research and education, as well as research infrastructures and extensive public healthcare system for decades. Now these investments are starting to bear fruit not only in healthcare but also as a source for innovation, business opportunities, jobs and economic growth.
“Helping to resolve the health challenges by providing new solutions for health and wellbeing has become one of Finland’s strengths. Finland’s health sector and the sector’s international links have grown at a faster pace than many other sectors in recent years. Today, Finland is a home of key centres of excellence for many globally operating corporations and has globally recognised research and technology spearheads in the health sector.
“Our common effort and investments are now delivering tangible results.
“Health technology, life sciences, digital health and wellbeing solutions as well as research related services are estimated to generate at the moment some €5bn as economic output annually (2.5% of Finland’s GDP). According to the industry association, health technology accounts for about half of Finnish high-tech exports, having reached a new record level of €1.92bn in 2015.
“The growth of both domestic and foreign direct investments and number of new research collaboration agreements signals that the opportunities offered by our operating environment and innovation ecosystem are also recognised elsewhere.
“In spite of the breakthroughs in research, growth of exports and number of new investment plans, we still have room to improve to benefit from the opportunities available.
“Digital health, personalised medicine and healthcare, as well as scientific research in areas, such as cancer and brain diseases are among the areas where Finnish knowhow is world-class. Interestingly, these are corresponding to areas where need for new innovations and solutions is in high demand.
“Thinking big and global in this regard cannot be emphasised too much – only by having the right level of ambition and being one of the best you can attract investments, funding, talent and market share. “In order to be successful in benefitting from the opportunities, we need cooperation between companies of different sizes from different fields – both domestic and foreign – and research institutions, universities, hospitals, biobanks and investors.
“Enhancing this type of multidisciplinary public-private cooperation is a key objective of Finland’s Health Sector Growth Strategy. The strategy was created and continues to be implemented jointly by ministries, key funding agencies, industry, universities and university hospitals. The recent growth in the sector and the new innovations and companies entering the market are an indication that, by working and innovating together, we are on right track.
“Boosting health sector growth is one of the key priorities in our overall growth policy. We are building on our strengths, thus digital health and personalised medicine are at the core of the growth strategy.
“Us Finns have high trust in science. Being able to rely on ethically sound legislation and research practices are not only important for our citizens, but a trustworthy environment is also a key enabler for the research community and the companies doing research in Finland.
“As we are drafting and implementing new legislation we continue to take into account citizens’ fundamental rights, data protection and privacy when building research- and innovation-friendly operating environment. We already have good experience of balancing the different needs in the biobank legislation, and these same principles are high on our agenda when now drafting the law on the utilisation of health data in research and innovation and enabling new digital services in healthcare.
“I will next go through some of the on-going actions, investments and plans we are implementing: As pharmaceutical industry and research institutes are looking for more effective ways to do research utilising big data and advanced analytics, the combination of our world-class biobanks, relatively isolated gene pool, extensive healthcare registries and the innovation friendly biobank regulation creates a very competitive environment internationally. The government recently announced a package of investments, totalling €17m to make these unique assets of Finland even stronger.
“A National Genome Centre and National Comprehensive Cancer Center will be established in Finland. As part of this investment package, we are also taking actions to enhance collaboration of our biobanks. At a time of tight public finances, this level of funding is a strong statement and reflects our commitment.
“Without doubt health-related science, research and education, as well as research infrastructures and healthcare, has been one of the most heavily invested areas of our society for decades. However, high-quality basic research has resulted in fewer innovations and commercial applications than we would have expected and hoped for.
“In the funding for health sector research provided by Tekes and the Academy of Finland and in the development of mutually complementary funding instruments, key objectives now include increasing the impact of research and enabling the utilisation of research results. Challenge Finland, Research Benefit and Innovation Scout are examples of the programs going on. Collaboration between the Academy of Finland and Tekes to support commercialisation of the most potential Academy funded health research is also on-going.
“Another essential objective for improving R&D impact is to boost the profiling and division of work between different players. In the health sector, nationally networked and strong hubs representing specific research fields could help to reach results and attract talent, as well as knowledge-intensive companies and funding on the levels that no player would be able to achieve alone. Academy of Finland provides funding for this.
“In the reform of Finland’s social welfare and healthcare sectors, many processes and structures within healthcare will be renewed. The reform cannot be realised without utilising the opportunities that technology, digitalisation and new treatments offer. At the same time, we have an opportunity to look at ways to strengthen public-private collaboration in research and innovation.
“The government is committed to further developing Finland as a competitive environment for health-sector research, innovation and business. We do not pick the winners, and it is up to companies, universities and university hospitals how the possibilities are utilised. Finland’s future success in this demanding but fruitful market will depend on the added value and the effectiveness of all of our actions. Best of success in that endeavour.”
This is an edited version of a speech