Addressing COVID-19: Fireside Chat With Roche Diagnostics

How's Roche Diagnostics facing the COVID-19 pandemic? On April 1, 2020, we held the second of our Fireside Chat Series: “Health Technology Solutions Addressing COVID-19”. In this session, Saeed Amidi sat down with Dr. Jochen Hurlebaus, Roche Diagnostic International's Head of Digital Health Innovation. They discussed the current situation and the future of the digital health landscape in the era of COVID-19.

Check out the video of the full event:


The Beginnings of Startup Creasphere

The relationship between Roche and Plug and Play sparked the founding of Startup Creasphere, an initiative dedicated to transforming the healthcare landscape—with Sanofi joining as a Founding partner.  

The team at Roche knew that they wanted an innovation partner that had a global reach, and Plug and Play ticked all the boxes.

“We were looking for a program that is very hands on, we wanted to engage with people and the startups”

“We were looking for a program that is very hands on, we wanted to engage with people and the startups,” said Dr. Jochen Hurlebaus. “So we said yes. We were an innovation team, but we didn’t want a startup zoo, where we only had a few people in Roche interacting with the startups. We wanted to make sure many people interacted with them.”

“I think this combination of having the diversity of global startups and the open innovation approach, that was actually what made the difference for us.”, concluded Dr. Hurlebaus. 

Based in Munich, the program is now in its fourth batch, and includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sana Kliniken, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein, and Lonza.

Roche’s Role in The Fight Against COVID-19

Roche is a global pioneer in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics, and they’re playing a key role in supporting health systems and patients in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. 

“With the outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003 it took five months to get the sequence of the virus, so that you could even start developing a genetic test.” said Dr. Hurlebaus. “This time, as soon as the Chinese had isolated the virus, it took two days to do the same. After two days, by mid-January, a small biotech company in Berlin developed the first test. And we had to develop a fully automated system to perform it; we had to bring it to the big laboratories that allow us to do a few hundred tests per hour automatically.”

Dr. Hurlebaus explained that the research effort to develop COVID-19 treatments is extraordinary, involving large corporations, universities and, of course, startups. For example, some startups are studying the virus and its protein structure, and, with machine learning algorithms, looking for existing treatments already on the market. 

“I think there’s a list of 60 or 70 that have been found that are approved by the FDA and that are now [being] tested to see if they can actually help to treat certain patients,” said Dr. Hurlebaus.

Telehealth: How COVID-19 Is Boosting Remote Patient Care

Dr. Hurlebaus explained how it is working with startups in the Creasephere program to respond to the crisis. 

“More than 50% of doctor visits are now virtual,” said Dr. Hurlebaus. “And it was not because the technology was not there before. It was there. But there were barriers.”

“If you look at FibriCheck, a startup from our program, they have an app for atrial fibrillation. They are now designing care plans with hospitals in certain countries to try to avoid any visits to the cardiologist and instead do them remotely. Or Babyscripts, also from our program, that gives pregnant women access to remote medical care.” 

What Has Roche Learned From Working With Startups?

“This was one of the biggest learnings that we had, the fact that these people exist, that you can motivate them.”

  • Engaging with startups motivates the team. When Roche started working with Plug and Play, they chose people from different teams across the company to work with startups. It was something brand new for them, and they were unsure about how it would turn out. 
    But it worked. These people continued their jobs, but also dedicated time to engage with the startups—and to think outside the box of their day-to-day work. They found it exciting, and spread this excitement to other people within the company, attracting more colleagues to join the projects. 
    “This was one of the biggest learnings that we had, the fact that these people exist, that you can motivate them.”

  • You need a Champion. Someone within the corporation needs to take the role of main contact person, and he/she needs to be aware of everything that’s going on. We call that person the Champion. 
  • Startup collaborations help organizations move faster: Collaborating with startups “actually helped these business units to advance faster with their strategy or their roadmaps because they learned so much from the startups.”  

Could we learn something out of this situation? In the words of Saeed Amidi, perhaps in the world after COVID-19 we could “keep this mindset and do things faster, better, sooner, and hopefully with less money.”

This was the second in our Fireside Chat series with leaders from across the Plug and Play ecosystem. Last week, we Plug and Play’s CEO and Founder Saeed Amidi had a conversation with Matthias Arleth, Deputy Chairman of Webasto Group, exploring the critical role of business leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic


We have launched a global COVID-19 accelerator dedicated to scaling the world’s most promising startups who can help address the coronavirus pandemic. Join the platform today.