Bayer Joins the Startup Party with Launch of Grants4apps Accelerator

By David Knight |

In some ways, stepping into Bayer’s complex of buildings next to the S-Bahn in Wedding is like stepping back in time. There’s the endless concrete, the dull green carpets, the house rules – I may or may not have been told off for breaking the ‘no photos’ rule – and the suits and ties everywhere you look. The pharma giant is even late to the accelerator party.

But while you couldn’t really argue it was fashionably late, at least it turned up, and first impressions are that now it’s here, it’s determined to relax, have fun and make the most of it, to complete the party metaphor.

The accelerator is part of Bayer HealthCare’s Grants4apps – even the name is a throwback – program, which is designed to help the company harness outside innovation in the ever-challenging world of healthcare. On Monday, the first five startups were officially welcomed into the program with a press day and pitch event.

All five are related to healthcare, as you might expect, but Christian Ullrich – who is responsible for digital innovation in marketing and sales IT at Bayer – insisted that the accelerator is not simply about finding ideas the company can later buy.

Ullrich was explaining Bayer’s strategy at the accelerator itself, which is tucked away in a set of offices set deep in the concrete bowels of the complex. Innovation in healthcare, he said, “can’t just be driven by the healthcare industry,” and establishing partnerships is a “key element in our strategy.” That includes new kinds of partnerships and co-operations.

As with other corporate accelerators, a big selling point for Grants4apps is the network offered by the parent – in this case, a multi-national pharma giant. The teams will spend three and a half months in the program, and will be given €50,000 in funding in exchange for “less than 10 percent” in equity.

“But to me,” Ullrich added, “even more important is that we will offer dedicated experienced senior managers for each startup as coaches.” This was proof, he said, senior management were fully committed to the project.

So what of the teams themselves? The five participating startups emerged from a field of 78 applicants, and include:

  • Cortrium – developing a smart device to assess body surface temperature, activity and respiration rate, with a high-performance three-channel ECG for screening and diagnostics of different heart diseases.
  • PharmAssistant – looking to cut down the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease with a smart connected medication container that alerts users when it is time to take your pills.
  • Parica – developing a system of contactless sensors to detect cardiac arrhythmia and enable prevention and early detection.
  • Fabulyzer – this startup is all about smells. Its nanotechnology sensors smell a user’s breath to see how much fat you have burnt off after exercise.
  • CardiMoni – a product from the startup Qompium, it’s a smartphone application that measures heart rate and rhythm and then users the devices connectivity to send that data to medical experts for clinical feedback.

You will notice some themes there – cardiac-related diseases and wearable technology. It’s a smart move on the part of Bayer, which may be sitting down at the startup table a little late, and may move a little slowly – the Grants4apps program has been in development for a couple of years now, but only launched last year – but could still stand to benefit massively from having such a focused program.

Healthcare is at the centre of a lot of innovation at the moment, especially in Europe, part of a wave of disruption in harder-to-disrupt spaces (think banking as well). Take the health and wellbeing final of the EIT ICT Labs Idea Challenge, for example.

And as long as Bayer avoids the trap of treating the participating startups like mini-departments, it could well tap into an elusive source of innovation.

Certainly the project seems popular amongst Bayer staff – the official opening event was jam-packed, with a smattering of the usual Berlin startup crowd outnumber by attendees who seemingly worked elsewhere in the building. Before the startups pitched, the crowd heard Reinhard Franzen, senior VP at Bayer HealthCare, emphasize the importance of harnessing startup innovation, and Cornelia Yzer, Berlin’s Senator for Economics, Technology and Research, extol the city’s virtues as a centre of entrepreneurship.

The teams, which have an international flavour, certainly seemed sold on the idea not only of Berlin, but of the accelerator being the best way for them to turn their ideas into reality.

Hopefully, not only will that come to be, but perhaps the startups can in turn have a positive impact on Bayer and its corporate culture (at least in Berlin), much like Hub:raum and similar projects seem to have had at Deutsche Telekom. Maybe next time I won’t even be told off for taking a photo when I wasn’t supposed to…