Innovation Hubs Blossom from Porto to Tartu

Innovation Hubs Blossom from Porto to Tartu

Adina Rus was in California, after moving there to be with her husband while he studied for an MBA. As she was on a sabbatical from her job as an economics lecturer at the Faculty of Economics, and had lots of spare time, she started volunteering to help children at a local school.

There, by chance, she began counselling a child with severe ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

“Kids with ADHD typically suffer from hyperactivity and this often comes out at school, when the intellectual challenges raise their agitation levels. This triggers a flare, and the class is disturbed,” she says. “It’s very upsetting for everyone, teachers and children.” 

Ms Rus, however, proved a natural counsellor, and, after basic training, soon found herself working at three schools in the Albany area of San Francisco. 

Returning to Cluj-Napoca, her native city in north-west Romania in 2014, she felt impelled to continue the work, taking a master’s in child psychology and development to gain a stronger theoretical foundation. 

Many children with ADHD understand their condition, and they don’t want to lose control. 

“Many children with ADHD understand their condition, and they don’t want to lose control. I realised that if we could somehow alert the kids before they reached threshold stress levels, they could avoid, or be helped to avoid the critical flashpoint,” she reasoned. 

Discussing the problem with Marius, her husband, the couple began to analyse the key parameters that could be measured and used to create an early warning system for ADHD sufferers. 

The result, three years on, is Tully, a bracelet-like device that monitors such biometric indicators as body temperature, heart rate, skin conductivity, blood oxygen saturation and movement indicators. 

“The key element of Tully is our own, proprietary algorithm which, from these measurements, determines a Stress and Agitation Score. If, based on the rate of change, this score reaches a critical level, the device vibrates, alerting the child to the potential onset of a stress-related flare,” Mr Rus explains. 

With the results of preliminary tests on 12 children in 2019 showing “a strong correlation between [the selected] biomarkers and the external manifestations of ADHD”, Stressless, the company formed to develop Tully, won investment, funding and support from EIT Health to undertake more intensive testing, which began this autumn. 

Stressless is not alone. Indeed, while little known in Western Europe, Cluj is a thriving innovation hub which has been quietly nurturing start-ups since the turn of the millennium. When EIT Health, one of the largest health innovation communities in the world, launched its first ‘EIT Health RIS Innovation Call’ to assist the best start-ups within their region in 2019, two of the 15 teams chosen were part of the Cluj regional hub. 

This year, the Romanian hub outperformed that, with four teams in total. The entrants (which included Stressless) were working in areas from lung cancer diagnosis to robotic systems for limb rehabilitation. 

Ion-Gheorghe Petrovai, co-founder of Freshblood HealthTech, says the primary reason for Cluj’s success is its strong educational institutions, specifically the Babes-Bolyai University, Technical University, and University of Medicine and Pharmacy, of which the latter has a sizeable number of foreign students studying in French and English. 

“All have long traditions and are among the best in Romania,” he says. They, in turn, provide the technological proficiency in the region “that has been tested and developed at the global level,” he adds. 

On top of this, the entire ecosystem, including the Cluj-Napoca City Hall NW Development Agency and IT companies, are supportive and cooperate to access the opportunities available. 

Petrovai, who himself is a medical doctor, is motivated by the fact that, in many cases, it is practicing professionals who combine their day jobs with research to solve medical ailments. 

He cites Cluj’s Chifor Research project, which is addressing periodontal disease (gingivitis), an all too common affliction that he feels is rather overlooked. “I also like the fact that the founder is a practicing dentist with an academic background, so he sees the problem from several contexts,” he adds.

In addition, Petrovai says support from EIT Health has enabled training and knowledge sharing among innovators in the Cluj region with like-minded people from all over Europe. 

I often say, we have the fire, EIT Health came with the fuel, now the flame is visible across Europe. The evolution in the last 3 years could not have happened without their support.

“I often say, we have the fire, EIT Health came with the fuel, now the flame is visible across Europe. The evolution in the last 3 years could not have happened without their support.”

Cluj is only one of a series of regional innovation hubs, ranging from Porto (Portugal) to Athens, the Greek capital, to Ljubljana (Slovenia), all founded by EIT Health. 

“Each of our hubs has produced some great start-ups,” says Monika Toth, programme manager of the EIT Health Regional Innovation Scheme.

Along with Cluj, Toth cites Kaunas, Lithuania, as a high performer, among others, pointing to Ligence, a start-up that uses deep learning technology that promises to make cardiovascular disease diagnosis faster, more accurate, and cost-efficient. Cardiovascular diseases are the cause of 40% of all disease-related deaths worldwide.

“Ligence is a team of very young talents; their project is aimed at saving the lives of patients with cardiovascular diseases,” Toth says. “Millions of lives can be saved by timely diagnosis. You can’t get a much more important healthcare issue than the heart.” 

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