HealthTech: French companies tap into data and AI to become world leaders in medical innovation 

Digital health is a booming sector, with the use of artificial intelligence and data-powered technologies growing among healthcare professionals and facilities. These tech solutions are expected to play a central part in building the future of medicine: delivering more personalized care, detecting pathologies at early stages, reducing care expenses, and empowering patients.

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COVID-19 was an important reminder that healthcare depends on the rapid flow of information and the ability to innovate. As the virus spread, governments and health authorities around the world had to quickly adopt digital technologies in order to manage the huge amounts of data coming from tens of thousands of hospitals. The pandemic, in other words, was both a wakeup call for the need to accelerate the sector’s digital transformation, and a unique opportunity to innovate for the future. 

 In France, the momentum of the HealthTech had already been gaining steam before COVID. France Biotech’s chairman Franck Mouthon described 2019 as a “pivotal year” marked by “major progress” in various scientific fields related to health thanks to new technologies and tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing. France had become Europe’s second-leading HealthTech ecosystem, trailing only the United Kingdom.  

The following years confirmed this trend. Some 900 new companies entered the sector, bringing the total to 2,600 in 2022, including 200 extra players in the fields of digital health and AI. To consolidate and strengthen its HealthTech ecosystem and put France on the map as a global leader, the country’s Recovery Plan 2030 now includes a “Health Innovation Plan” with a €7.5 billion allocation.  

The goal is to improve and preserve the health of France’s 68 million population and share France’s expertise with the medical field worldwide. This expertise includes new applied technologies, ranging from AI-based solutions that improve the time and quality of diagnoses to digital tools that reduce the administrative burden on clinical staff and optimize interdisciplinary communication. 

The many benefits of real-world data 

 French health technology firm Cegedim was founded in 1969, back when digital computing was in its early days to provide solutions for healthcare players. The company now supplies technological tools, specialized software, data flow management services and databases for the healthcare sector.  

Today, one in two healthcare professionals (GPs, nurses, midwives, physiotherapists, orthopedists, etc.) in France is equipped with Cegedim’s SaaS, which allows them to view a patient’s history at a glance and access a medication database. The software therefore saves time and ensures optimized and more personalized follow-ups. Among the healthcare professional users, a few thousands form part of a network (THIN, The Health Improvement Network) allowing the collection of real-world data, directly anonymized in the software used by the healthcare professional (i.e data relating to patient characteristics and clinical outcomes), as opposed to traditional clinical trial data.  

 The anonymized collected data is used by other professionals. “Our data solutions are intended for the whole healthcare chain: health and paramedical professionals, leading healthcare authorities, academics and research centers,” says Arnault Billy, Senior Vice President, Group Strategic Development. “Data allows for better diagnosis, better treatment and above all, early detection of pathologies and risks which, in the end, serves the patient as well as the public health, the society and the economy as a whole.”  

 Through its “Claude Bernard” database and in collaboration with leading cancer-research hospital Gustave Roussy, Cegedim has developed an algorithm able to help detecting patients at high risk of lung cancer and guide them towards preventive exams and a monitoring and care program. “We want prevention to happen as early as possible. Thanks to AI and data, it is possible for cancers, but also chronic and rare diseases that are otherwise very hard to detect and address in time.” 

 AI-assisted reading of medical imaging to improve pathologies detection 

 French start-up Incepto also uses AI but to improve diagnosis and speed up the detection and interpretation of images. It was created in 2018 by Gaspard d’Assignies, Florence Moreau and Antoine Jomier, who describe it as the “Netflix of medical imaging.” Through a single platform, Incepto develops and distributes more than 20 AI-based applications for specific medical imaging, from MRI and X-Ray to nuclear medicine and CT scans. It is aimed at hospital departments and ER, to optimize both doctors’ and patients’ time between a scan and its reading.  

 “We co-create our solutions with the best radiologists in their field, using between 3,000 and 25,000 existing pieces of data from medical exams,” explains Florence Moreau, CTO & Co-Founder. Contrary to Cegedim’s Real-World Data approach, Incepto’s AI is trained before being put on the market. “Our solutions are fixed,” she explains. 

Not having a continuously learning algorithm was a conscious decision for the company for two reasons. First, because doctors signaling that they disagree with the AI diagnosis could later bias results, leading to some signs being ignored. Second, it was crucial for the founders to set up a strict framework on the use of data to comply with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and assure patients that their information will not be used elsewhere.  

 Incepto’s applications run in 150 clinical sites. In March alone, 200,000 exams were performed through the platform. Among those exams, the AI might have helped detect early signs of cancer or another disease. “The AI is here to point the doctor in a direction. It is a second pair of eyes, an assistant. It will never replace a doctor,” says Moreau, acknowledging the fact that this technology can raise some resistance and fear. “This is why we like to talk about ‘augmented radiologists’.” 

 The big potential of Europe as a leader in the health data market  

 Last September, Incepto completed a €27 million funding round, led by LBO France, with the participation of the Autonomous Patient fund of Bpifrance, to support its expansion into four new European countries (Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal). “We have always been aiming for a European deployment,” says the company’s CTO. “There are huge challenges and great opportunities on the continent, despite the very tough competition led by the U.S. on the data front. Thanks to its renowned medical expertise, a very rich and powerful R&D fabric as well as governmental support and strong data protection policies, France could play a leading role in the development of the very young digital health sector.”  

 This is a vision shared by Cegedim, which has expanded the distribution of its locally adapted softwares to the UK, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Romania. The French company has also opened up its THIN® (The Health Improvement Network) database to seven European countries. With 69 million medical records and a total of 490 million patient-years, it is the largest European database of anonymized Electronic Health Records collected at the physicians’ level, and has pioneered what the EU is now trying to achieve with its “European Health Data Space.” This ambitious project is due to partially launch within the next two years through a pilot version that will actually be operated by a consortium led by Paris-based public agency Health Data Hub.  

 Cegedim also joined La French Care, a movement that gathers private and public actors from France’s healthcare sector to develop and promote its excellence. “All of us, on all fronts, need to work together with collective intelligence to co-create the 3.0 of our healthcare system,” concludes Arnaul Billy. “AI and data are going to be key to its construction but also to its promotion.”