For nearly a decade, Bayer’s flagship accelerator for startups has grown to the ecosystem of innovators active in 35 countries. To explore how G4A has become a primary destination for digital health companies and how it drives culture change at Bayer, The Sidebar interviewed Dominick Kennerson, Global Head of Bayer G4A Digital Health Partnerships.
I remember that meeting to this day. In the hall of Bayer’s Berlin headquarters, several hundred people were split into small groups. An informal atmosphere, no ties or heels, cool drinks and the highest concentration of digital health advocates per square meter. It was the 2013 kick-off of the Grants4Aps, today G4A, heralded the new era in the pharmaceutical industry.
What began as small meetups is now one of the leading networks accelerating cutting-edge solutions in healthcare. G4A has hosted 76 startups, built a vibrant network of healthcare innovators, and scaled up the first digital solutions on the market in several categories. It has become one of the driving wheels of the global digital transformation in healthcare.
Energy generated from people’s enthusiasm
From day one, G4A achieved a lot of attention. It was one of the first accelerators, a place “to be” for digital health believers, investors, startups, VCs, politicians, and independent experts.
“The network aggregated a lot of energy, created a stage for conversations and ideas,” says Dominick Kennerson.
At that time, being responsible for global communication in Bayer, Dominick joined his first G4A meetup in Cologne. Over the years, he observed the organic growth of G4A to finally take the helm in 2020.
As the power of the newly established accelerator expanded throughout the world, it initiated networks and hubs, accelerated community engagement and partnerships. While reaching worldwide popularity, G4A needed a structured framework to meet new demands in terms of value and to accomplish its mission: Scaling digital health to create impact, empower lives, and change the experience of health.
G4A provides two tracks for digital health companies on a different stage of development: Seed/Pre-Series A startups and Series A+ and above for advanced digital health companies. In both cases, these models focus on some of the most pressing global health challenges, such as cardiovascular and cardiometabolic diseases, cancer, women’s health, and mental health.
“For innovators, G4A is a springboard to jump to the next opportunity, whether it’s funding, mentoring or partnerships with Bayer,” highlights Dominick. “One of the startups selected for the acceleration programme was Sidekick Health, probably the market leader in the gamification space. Not many other companies have designed something as intuitive around games and have clinical evidence.”
In the long term, G4A is much more than an accelerator. One of the community’s objectives was to create a digital mindset and foster culture change within the Bayer company. And this is probably one of the most significant returns on investment from G4A.
A pill, an app, and the human-centered healthcare
For Bayer, G4A was the key to exploring digital health innovations in real life – to experiment and build partnerships. The G4A programs have placed the integrated care division within the digital and commercial innovation department responsible for identifying digital health solutions beyond the pill and new business models, rethinking prevention and disease management.
“We have developed the digital therapeutic ecosystem to the point where it works well. If doctors can prescribe apps for patients, this is what the biopharmaceutical industry has been looking for. However, our thinking about transformation goes not only beyond the pill but also beyond the app. I mean here integrated care – a new approach of human-centred design to impact behavior change,” says Dominick, who sees the opportunity in having the right digital health tool at the right time for the right people, created with the right partners.
He emphasizes that we should design digital health solutions around people and how they live to help them incorporate lifestyle and behavior changes.
“Patients rarely think of themselves as patients. Even if you lay in a hospital bed, you are not used to describing yourself solely as ‘a sick patient.’ Besides the condition, there is the person. Trying to assign people as patients means that you perceive them like they were always with their disease, disconnected from other aspects of life. This is part of our mindset – that people’s journeys go beyond the condition.”
For Dominick, the integrated care approach is crucial as it takes into account different experiences, psychological, and physical needs.
It’s like 2025. Rapid growth may overheat
To keep innovating, we must be critical of previously established concepts and rethink what doesn’t work. Many of them have been neglected until the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the challenges, among others, inequities, and limited access to health services.
We’ve realized that healthcare systems are not sustainable. Many appointments have been cancelled – patients couldn’t consult their problems, clarify symptoms, or get support. It led, for example, to a decrease in cancer diagnosis in 2020 and their expected increase in the upcoming months or years. Digital health has the potential to change that, while digital therapeutics can support people in terms of disease prevention and thus contribute to more equity in healthcare.
Since COVID-19 has accelerated digital health, there are very clear signals that healthcare’s transformation has gained traction.
“In 2020, digital health matured by at least five years. We’ve seen how venture funding is skyrocketing. The investment boom gave a clear signal to the market – healthcare undergoes an unprecedented shift.”
But for Dominick, this fast growth poses some threats. New players entering healthcare often don’t have experience in healthcare – a much more complex sector than any other industry. These concerns can be seen whenever big tech companies announce their plans regarding the healthcare market.
Becoming a solid part of the digital ecosystem
Dominick Kennerson makes no secret: his goal is to ensure that G4A will continue expanding. Therefore, he focuses on finding the right partners and engaging with health tech companies: from early-stage startups to mature digital health companies. “We want to be the primary destination for digital health, whether it’s an investor, innovator, or any stakeholder exploring new opportunities at the crossroads of people-health and technology. G4A wants to be on the shortlist of all innovative companies looking for investors and partnerships.” When asked about further plans for the next ten years, he jokes: “Well, if I’m working this job in 10 years, it means we have a problem.”
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