Tapping into the Global Hacking Health Network

It was a gorgeous fall day in midtown Detroit when we sat down with Sebastien Mabillard, the Executive Director of Swiss Digital Health, for a chat about all things health and tech.

Sebastien flew in from Switzerland in search of best practices for developing the health tech sector to bring back home – and was eager to learn about the cross-border Med Health Cluster and Hacking Health Windsor-Detroit, spearheaded by WEtech Alliance and TechTown Detroit.

“In Hacking Health you have this global platform for tackling health care challenges,” says Sebastien.  “The systems may be different, but the challenges are so similar that you’re sharing new approaches and new insights.”

He was catching his breath after a brisk agenda already shuttled him through Montreal and Toronto – where he met with the Hacking Health teams on the ground, toured the MaRS Discovery District that accelerates tech companies, and met with folks from St. Elizabeth and CHU Saint Justine hospital.

Along the way Sebastien participated in the Cooperathon – the largest open innovation competition in Canada and the successful inaugural Arthritis Hack hosted by Hacking Health Toronto.

Sebastien’s visit, and subsequent meetings with stakeholders in Detroit and Ann Arbor was organized by Zain Ismail, a Senior Consultant at Henry Ford Health System and member of the Organizing Committee for Hacking Health Windsor-Detroit.  This included touring the Henry Ford Innovation Institute and meeting with Henry Ford’s performance improvement team to discuss use cases for digital health technology in an urban healthcare environment.

Paul Riser hosted our meeting at Tech Town Detroit, where he is the Director of Tech-Based Entrepreneurship.

Crossing borders and boundaries in search of common ground is nothing new for Sebastien.  The Swiss health care system spans 26 cantons – each one responsible for delivering health care with their own local variations – and across four languages.

“For testing and designing solutions, Switzerland is this little laboratory because you can test across three cultures and three languages – it’s a plus and it’s part of our pitch to health care companies,” says Sebastien.

Swiss Digital Health was established in 2016 to bring creative people together in tech and health – to serve as that bridge – which is what attracted Sebastien to Hacking Health.

But the actual hackathon is just the beginning, he says.

“What is critical is having the service around the idea, to support the people who leave a Hacking Health hackathon with an idea,” Sebastien says.  “What’s next? That’s’ the critical question.  And that’s the question behind Swiss Digital Health.”

Sebastien was impressed when Paul Riser delved into the MedHealth Cluster initiative featuring 25 cross-border partners in Southeast Michigan and Southwestern Ontario that emerged from the original Hacking Health Windsor-Detroit.

The Cluster is an informal collaborative of health care practitioners, hospitals, research centres, insurance providers and economic development organizations that leverages assets to boost the region’s status as a hub of innovation in the health tech sector.

For example, the MedHealth Cluster is building a commercialization Pathfinder that will guide medical device and digital health innovators on their path toward commercialization.  The Pathfinder provides that kind of road map to support for any health care entrepreneur that walks through the door.

The Cluster is also conducting a regional assessment of the advantages and gaps of the health sciences sector in the region.

Left to right: Irek Kusmierczyk, Paul Riser, Sebastien Mabillard and Zain Ismail at TechTown Detroit

At the same time, the Medhealth Cluster continues to host an annual Medhealth Summit that brings together health care organizations and innovators, building those important bridges between creative people at the intersection of health and tech.

The Swiss Digital Health initiative came about from an earlier initiative called The Ark Foundation – which established a network of tech accelerators and incubators in the canton of Valais to develop tech industries across numerous sectors through a network of connected campuses such a BioArk, TechnoArk, IdeArk and PhytoArk that have their own specialty.

“We are focusing our attention on the intersections of IT with health, energy, smart cities etc.,” says Sebastien.

It was interesting to hear Sebastien discuss a pilot project from Swiss Post – the national mail carrier.  They are deploying drones to send laboratory tests from hospitals to labs and back in the tourist town of Lugano.

Could we see drones one day transporting lab tests and tissue samples between Canadian and American hospitals across the Detroit River?

After the meeting – Sebastien set off to visit Fast Forward Medical Innovation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before setting off to Navicent Health in Macon, Georgia.

The global Hacking Health network at work.


Irek Kusmierczyk, PhD is the Director of Partnerships at WEtech Alliance, a Regional Innovation Centre accelerating tech & innovation in Windsor-Essex, co-founder of Hacking Health Windsor-Detroit and member of the cross-border MedHealth Cluster.

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