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Interview with Alessandra Apicella

South Korea excels in digital technology, an expertise that can be valuable in healthcare.

How has South Korea been particularly innovative?

South Korea invests 4.2% of its gross domestic product in research and development, versus 2.3% for the average OECD country. It stands out in information technology, an area into which it has poured a lot of resources and that has driven its incredible economic growth over the past few decades. These days, IT innovation mainly focuses on data.

How does that affect healthcare?

South Korea is on the cutting edge in the use of big data and digital technology in hospitals. Bundang Hospital in Seoul is the first all-digital healthcare facility in the world. Patient data is shared within the hospital, meaning that every doctor can access all patient information in real time. That improves efficiency. The practitioner in the best position to respond to a problem can be identified easily, without necessarily having to carry out any additional appointments. Diagnosis is also faster. Operating room equipment is all electronic, which reduces human errors. And drug prescriptions are better adapted to the patient’s specific profile using big data. All that information enables doctors to prescribe a very precise dose by factoring in the patient’s body mass, age and pathology. That is an important step towards personalised medicine and can help cut costs.

How are Switzerland and South Korea working together?

Switzerland is very advanced in life science but could benefit tremendously from South Korea’s expertise in integrating information technology into the field. The Swiss-Korean Life Science Initiative, a public-private partnership established in 2014 with the support of the Science & Technology Office, aims to nurture collaboration and exchange between the two countries. To facilitate that, meetings are held regularly, and several partnerships have been formed.

Can you provide some concrete examples?

The Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and the Korean in vitro diagnostics start-up Noul have teamed up to work on malaria research. The University of Basel has welcomed Korean start-ups at its innovation park, and young Basel-based companies have gone to Korea. In another example, Korean hospitals using electronic systems gained interest in the cantons of Basel and Jura. Swiss representatives had the chance to meet with a Korean delegation in 2016 to discuss the topic. Several other partnerships are also being prepared.

Are a lot of Korean start-ups active in medtech?

In South Korea, innovation is led primarily by major tech groups such as Samsung and LG, which are real pillars for the country’s economy. At the other end of the spectrum, small businesses most often offer little innovation and specialise in services. But the innovation ecosystem has been bolstered in recent years with the set-up of creative centres and accelerators. Today, a fertile environment is available for medtech start-ups, many of which focus on integrating artificial intelligence into medical systems.



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Alessandra Apicella heads the Science & Technology Office at the Swiss Embassy in South Korea. With a PhD in materials engineering from Politecnico di Milano (Polytechnic University of Milan), she previously worked at the Swiss Integrative Center for Human Health and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).