HUG innovation day: 'everyone can make a difference'

Prof. Antoine Geissbuhler, MD. Source: UNIGE.

In the midst of the Covid crisis, the Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève (HUG) has become not only a medical reference but also a pillar of hope. 

In September, the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services (CCGI) and the Office for the Promotion of Industries and Technologies (OPI) awarded the HUG and the Geneva-Clinics with the 2020 Innovation Prize for their outstanding collaboration in addressing the Covid-pandemic, maintaining a performing health system during the entire period.

The HUG also received the “Médaille de l’Université” during the University of Geneva Dies Academicus in October, recognizing their impressive ability to cope with the crisis and serve the community.

In 2017, the HUG opened its new innovation centre, an incubator for good ideas and freedom of thought for everyone. At its head, Professor Antoine Geissbuhler. Also in charge of the e-health and telemedicine service and vice-rector at the University of Geneva in charge of digital transformation, he embraces the institution’s strategic development and strongly believes in the building and connecting power of innovation. He discusses the challenges to come as the centre prepares for its fourteenth innovation day. The event provides opportunities to highlight new projects, and awarding prizes to the most promising innovations.

Geneva Solutions: What is the innovation centre?

Antoine Geissbuhler: Innovation is not a new thing. We did not wait until we had a 2015-2020 strategic plan to innovate. It has been a long tradition.

The mantra of the innovation centre is that everyone can make a difference. We have 12,000 employees at the HUG, and that means 12,000 brains. Not all of them are researchers or future Nobel Prize winners, but everyone can have good ideas. These good ideas are there to improve the functioning of the hospital and the services to our patients.

Innovation can take many forms: discovering a new drug, inventing a new medical-technical process, but also something completely different around organisation, logistics, a broom for example to clean an MRI or an innovative glove dispenser. The idea from the start was to break with typical specialized or top-down approaches and be more participative. This meant including the patients on the one hand - we created a platform called patient-partners which now brings together hundreds of patients who work with us on projects - and on the other hand with the collaborators - and we called this platform collaborators-actors. And a central element of this platform is the innovation centre. It's a place that is fully embodied, that wants to be offbeat and challenging. It is also a place where you want to go when you have an idea you want to develop.

The innovation centre is also a hosting a number of events to make it visible, to celebrate ideas, and encourage people to be part of the action, hackathons for example that have really shaken the institution. People realised that in 24 or 36 hours, if you get together, you can do extraordinary things.

GS: Do you have an example?

AG: One of the most striking example is the so-called Concerto tablet. The idea was to enable patients to better participate in their hospitalisation process. That means for him or her to know what is going to happen, to identify the people around their bed, to plan visits because at certain times, to choose their menu, to find out about their pathology and to have access to educational documents. All these ideas emerged three years ago during a hackathon. The project was financed by the HUG Private Foundation and is now widely deployed and used within the institution. During the Covid crisis, it enabled patients, with a lack of digital skills, particularly elderly people, to stay in touch with their loved ones via visioconference.

The Covid-crisis has forced us to find solutions very quickly. We had to adapt and be very reactive.

GS: What is the HUG innovation day?

AG: It's a day that promotes the dynamics of innovation within the HUG. A certain number of projects that have been selected by a jury of experts from different fields (care processes, development of pharmaceutical products, digital tools, etc.) are presented and prizes are awarded. All projects are presented in poster format, which allows interested people to meet, exchange, create new ideas and ensure that the teams complement each other. Selected projects get the opportunity to pitch in front of experts. It is a moment of recognition, of course, but it is also a way to connect with the Geneva innovation ecosystem. We do hope that some of these projects will give rise to start-ups or technology transfers.

GS: What types of projects are presented?

AG: The projects represent the different fields quite well. Some innovations are medical research and pharmacological proposals, others focus on new therapies, drugs or medico-technical tools. And there are also innovations in the field of care processes or logistical support. More and more projects  are related to Health IT, digital technologies in the service of care and health.

A few years back, one of the prizes was a new sterile glove dispensing mechanism. It was licensed to a local SME that is now marketing it.

GS: How do you feel about that continuous process?

AG: It's very pleasing, especially for innovators who are discovering what entrepreneurship means. They create a team to value this. Knowing that the team around the innovation centre will push this, create enthusiasm, support for enthusiasts, is wonderful.

What we would like is for this enthusiasm for good ideas and believing in them to be something of a daily habit. Everyone should feel that they can make a difference. They don’t need to be a researcher or in a certain hierarchical position to have a good idea. It has created a slightly different mindset in the institution as well. I would even say that during the first wave of the Covid crisis, we saw people from the field bringing in new ideas. I think that this culture of participation in the broadest sense, of daring to say things, of getting out of the hierarchical shackles, of managing to free up spontaneity and speech are really important things.

GS: What are the most important issues today?

AG: It is not easy to be both an inventor and an entrepreneur. A lot of people have great ideas, but don't necessarily want to leave their job to set up a start-up. We have mechanisms in place today to help them associate with people who do have the skills to realise the projects. It's a challenge. It is even a little more complicated when we talk about biomedical research. It comes down to the dilemma between publishing, i.e. making one's idea public, and taking away the exclusivity necessary for commercialisation and not making it public to patent it, for example. In recent years, we have developed pre-incubators, structures that are closer to researchers in that sense. In the Faculty of Medicine, we have a pre-incubator called the translational accelerator, and in the Faculty of Science, the science innovation hub. More are being developed. There is an appetite among students, young researchers and HUG co-workers to join these dynamics, with a balance to be found between the reality of their daily work, the protection of intellectual property and how to make the most of all this. Our technology transfer office, Unitec, is key to help navigate and find the best way forward for these innovations.

GS: What is Geneva's breeding ground in terms of innovation?

AG: We have a very good level of training. There is also a fairly pragmatic side to finding solutions. We're in a system where people know each other well. It's an effervescent world, with a structure that is not always very clear, but there are many channels in all areas. Our innovation centre meets up regularly with the innovation centres of other institutions, such as the TPG, Geneva airport, RTS, SIGs, etc. We meet and exchange good practices. There is a real ecosystem of enthusiasm, we don't feel competition as a handicap. We also connect with other organizations from the International Geneva, such as CERN, international organizations and NGOs. I would love to have an innovation day every week. Today there is probably one every month, but there is potential to make it even more dynamic.