While many people are familiar with Taiwan as a major manufacturer of IT components, its position as a leader in healthcare is less well known.

In the International Health Care Index, which looks at facilities, infrastructure, staff competency and cost, Taiwan placed ninth, well above the UK (35th) and US (54th).

It is also acknowledged to be among the top 10 medical tourism destinations due to its well-qualified medical personnel, cutting-edge equipment and high-quality hospitals.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that Taiwan is rapidly becoming a centre for cutting-edge medtech, with the aim to transform not only its own healthcare system, but also the world’s.

The Taiwanese MedTech transforming healthcare -MedTech

The timing couldn’t be better as fertility rates are declining among developed economies, life expectancy is increasing and Taiwan’s population is well on the way to becoming “super-aged”, creating an urgent need for technological solutions. The positive for Taiwan is that it is positioned to reap the windfall from soaring global demand for healthcare services, with medtech projected to grow at 5.6 per cent annually until at least 2024, when it will be a US$595 billion industry.

Walter Yeh is president and CEO of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA). The non-profit, government-backed organisation has been promoting Taiwan’s medical services through expos and trade missions for the past 10 years. During this decade, Yeh says medical tourism numbers have soared from 30,000 to 400,000 visitors a year.

“Our doctors are elites, selected whilst still in high school to be the best of the best. They are well trained, with many receiving international experiences in the UK, United States and Japan,” Yeh says. In addition to providing world-first treatments and surgeries, Yeh says Taiwan has a sterling reputation for heart transplants, hip replacements, eye care, dental care, rehabilitation and cosmetic surgery.

The Taiwanese MedTech transforming healthcare -surgeon

Sweat and long hours may have kick-started Taiwan’s economy five decades ago, but it is now relying on its advantages as a global leader in ICT to get ahead. Based on a firm foundation of semiconductor and hardware manufacturing, plus a mature supply chain, Taiwan has become a prime mover in intelligent tech and software solutions.

Much of the impetus for this drive to the future comes from Taiwan’s “5 + 2 Industrial Innovation Plan”, which picks out “pillar industries” and then adds emerging or promising markets. Huge amounts of government-backed venture capital has poured into these enterprises, while academic institutions and private companies have, as they say in Taiwan, “joined hands” to “sow the seeds of the next great industrial ecosystem”.

The results are starting to show, particularly in biomedical solutions and artificial intelligence (AI). For example, Microsoft is spending upwards of US$34 million on joining companies such as Amazon, IBM, Yahoo and Graphen in building dedicated AI centres in Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Taiwan AI Labs, led by Ethan Tu, Microsoft’s former R&D director for the Asia-Pacific region, has become a virtual factory for the production of AI applications focused on smart cities, human interaction and healthcare. AI is predicted to decrease costs, create brain-computer interfaces and lead to the development of virtual nursing assistants who never tire, make mistakes or ask for extra pay. 

Several outstanding companies that combine medical care and AI have already taken off, supported by government-backed initiatives such as Taiwan Tech Arena, which promotes its top tech startups around the world.

Meanwhile, government-private sector initiatives include a collaboration with the electronics company Acer to produce an AI-based forecasting website for influenza. Acer also partnered with MediaTek to form the “Asia IoT Alliance”, which leverages the Internet of Things to create medtech breakthroughs such as remote health centres, which provide cloud-based services for chronically ill people.

Another medtech pioneer is iXensor, which was founded by three bright minds who met on a Stanford-Taiwan Biomedical Fellowship Program. The company aims to provide instant medical tests. Its Eveline Ovulation Test helps couples conceive, while iXensor PixoTest is the world's first smartphone camera-based blood test approved by the FDA. It not only enables on-the-spot health checkups but also provides an early warning system for cardiovascular disease, the main cause of death for people living with diabetes.

The Taiwanese MedTech transforming healthcare -iXensor, Pixotest

The PixoTest by iXensor allows diabetes sufferers to measure blood glucose using their smartphone.

“Taiwan has developed solid foundations in information technology and the in vitro diagnosis industries,” says iXensor co-founder Carson Chen when explaining the company’s growth, which included early-stage financial support from the government and introductions to global partners through TAITRA at domestic and international expos. 

“Medtech is a pretty broad field but I would definitely say Taiwan has the opportunity to be a strong contributor in areas such as digital health,” Chen says, adding that Taiwan produces first-class medical professionals, IT engineers and a rapidly developing biomedical ecosystem of science parks. “It’s a rising field and we are expecting the first success stories in the following five to 10 years to trigger the next wave of evolution.”   

Taiwan has got off to a fast start but it needs to keep up the pace, and this is where the idea of Taiwan Excellence comes in. The annual Taiwan Excellence awards were introduced in 1993 to recognise outstanding and innovative products across all sectors, including healthcare. Sometimes called the “Oscars of Taiwan” by industry insiders, each year Taiwan’s leading companies and ambitious entrepreneurs compete for the label that signifies the best products Taiwan has to offer.

Recent winners of the Taiwan Excellence Awards include cutting-edge health-tracking wearables, smart bedside terminals, and tablet devices for healthcare professionals.

TAITRA’s Walter Yeh is well aware that 30 years ago Taiwan was known for cheap manufacturing. “When a product broke they would say, ‘Made in Taiwan’. Not anymore. Now the Taiwan Excellence brand signifies cutting-edge business assets, as our products are among the best in the world.”

Now with its expertise in medical care and IT, Taiwan is transforming into a hub for biotech and medical R&D. BioMed Taiwan, for example, aims to take a generous slice of the global life sciences industry – which is projected to generate US$10 trillion in 2022 – by creating transformative technologies in the fields of applied biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

As iXensor co-founder Alan Tsai puts it: “We have a high quality and efficient healthcare system and a competitive IT industry in Taiwan. By combining these two industries, we have great potential to develop advantageous products and services to the world.”

 

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