TOA Podcast Studio: How Heartbeat Labs builds digital health products
For Stephanie Kaiser, product management boils down to a basic relationship: the interface between the engineer and the user. It’s an intuitive, empathetic understanding that the Berlin-based entrepreneur has carried throughout her career spent developing products for MTV/Nickelodeon, building a social network for Jamba, producing games for Wooga, and working as vice president of product at Clue, which became the world’s fastest-growing female health startup.
I recently chatted with Stephanie as part of our TOA Podcast Studio series, recorded during the Tech Open Air 2019 conference, and discussed her human-centered approach to solving some of Germany’s most pressing healthcare problems.
Today, Stephanie is applying her product development skillset to an entirely different kind of user: patients. She’s the co-founder and managing director of the digital health platform Heartbeat Labs, which funds and scales healthcare startups.
Designing products for a purpose
While U.S. patients are familiar with digital health products and services, it’s still a budding sector in Germany. For instance, telemedicine services — such as video chatting with a doctor — have only been legal in the country since 2017. And it remains prohibited for doctors to even market such services, although that law is expected to be amended.
For Stephanie, the nascent digital health market in Germany presents a massive opportunity to help people. It was a perfect marriage of her extensive product development acumen and her positive experiences helping women while working at Clue.
“I’ve heard many stories of how Clue helped women to understand their bodies better,” she says. “The app is used by millions of people, and products are only used by millions if it truly helps them. That really drives me — the people I’m working with, and the meaning of the product, how it actually impacts people in their lives.”
At Heartbeat Labs, Stephanie is working to invest in promising healthcare startups, as well as help scale the company’s own growing portfolio of health ventures. The company hopes to capitalize on the growing acceptance of digital health services in the German market, while filling much-needed gaps in patient care.
To date, Heartbeat Labs has founded five startups, including two telemedicine companies: Fernarzt, an online service that helps patients order and manage their medications, and Kinderheldin, a midwife consultation service for expecting mothers and new parents. The others include digital biomarker platform, N1 — which aims to improve clinical trials for rare diseases — and two medical practice chains.
Launching health sector startups
In essence, Heartbeat Labs is an “operationally involved company builder,” according to Stephanie.
“We call it a platform,” she says. “But what we really do is invest in digital health startups, as well as start companies on our own, delivering services to them — whatever they need to build a startup — so they can focus on what whatever they need to focus on. We call those services general startup components and medical startup components. So, for example, we have product people, we have designers, we have tech people, but we also have medical and legal teams to help guide them.”
The company has already raised millions of euros to jump-start its investment and portfolio offerings. Should its success continue to grow, Heartbeat Labs could become one of the leading platforms for digital transformation in the German healthcare market. The company also has international ambitions, with a recent investment, for example, in the Indian online dermatologist company CureSkin.
At its core, Heartbeat Labs has a simple mission: build what patients need. “We started with rather simple ideas,” Stephanie says. “It’s a tricky space, because it’s about health — the health of actual people. So, we said, ‘We really need to learn from the users and patients first.'”
On the leading edge of digital disruption
Stephanie’s role as a digital health leader extends well beyond the office walls of Heartbeat Labs. In addition to founding companies, she now directly advises the German federal government on digitization, as a member of its newly formed Digital Council.
She describes her role at the Digital Council as an advocate for digital change. “I’m basically trying to instill the agile mindset — and I know that’s a buzzword — into the government,” she says. To her, the German government is like a big corporation, with lots of people working together.
Stephanie says that the German government, while understandably cautious about new technology, needs to become more ambitious in its digital efforts — which includes growing comfortable with making possible missteps, at least at first. “I don’t actually like the word “failure” in this context,” she says. “Because it’s not a failure — it’s just a dis-proven hypothesis or assumption. It’s just a learning.”
The good news is that the German government is already adopting a more modern approach to digitization. For instance, the German legislature recently adopted a draft bill of the Digital Supply Act, which will allow low-risk digital health applications — such as telemedicine services — to be reimbursed under public statutory health insurance, which covers roughly 90 percent of Germans.
This gives digital health startups a full year of live use to prove whether their service actually works. For Stephanie, the impact of the new rule cannot be understated: “It really is like a revolution for us in digital health,” she says.
Looking ahead, Stephanie hopes the development signals an ongoing, positive shift in German attitudes towards digital health — one that bodes well for the future of Heartbeat Labs, and for patients. “For us, it is about building digital services in a different way,” he says. “It’s not the mindset we have yet, but we will get there. I’m fighting for it.”
Stay tuned for each new episode of the TOA Podcast Studio series on the What’s NEXT podcast feed. Co-hosted by TOA and Samsung NEXT, these sessions brought together a dozen of today’s leading minds in technology to share the human stories behind their innovations. To hear more, subscribe to What’s NEXT on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or via RSS on your podcast app of choice.