Nice to have you, could you tell a bit, who you are?
Hey Sina, sure thing! I am Matthias Diener, one of the Co-Founders of the Berlin based Health Startup Digital Rheuma Lab, thanks for having me!
As your company´s name may suggest, you are involved in Digital Rheumatology. What are you aiming for?
Indeed, we operate in rheumatology and aim to bridge gaps in the patient journey of patients with rheumatic diseases with the help of digital solutions and services. We’re currently developing a therapy companion app in cooperation with the Deutsche Rheuma-Liga, several German university clinics and patients from our community – which by now is one of the largest patient-centric communities in Germany.
Could you explain in a little more detail, what kind of products you are working on?
With our first product, the companion app rheumio., we address the rheumatological undersupply of patients. Due to increasing numbers of patients and an already limited but decreasing number of rheumatologists, it is unfortunately not always possible to provide patients with full support during the course of therapy that goes beyond drug therapy. This is where we want to create an impact with rheumio. The app empowers patients in living healthier and happier lives by offering in-depth disease education courses and subsequent recommendations for lifestyle interventions, all based on official medical guidelines. Our aim is to increase the health literacy and self efficacy of those affected and to have a positive long-term effect on the course of their therapy.
How did you get the idea to become active in this area?
First and foremost out of personal concern. As a patient myself, I have been affected by a rheumatic disease since I am 19 and have first-hand knowledge of the often poor care situation. With the desire to improve things here, we have spoken to several hundred patients and other stakeholders in rheumatology and identified a lack of information and support in therapy as one of the core problems of those affected. We also lately published an unmet needs study regarding that point and developed an initial version of rheumio. based on those findings with key players in German rheumatology.
Can interested patients already use your app?
rheumio. is currently being tested with clinical partners. In parallel, we offer exclusive early access to rheumio. to selected subscribers on our product waitlist (check our website to sign up for the waitlist) to really push our co-creation approach, as we see this as the only way to deliver a solution that truly helps patients. In our testing environment, patients can already use initial features, give much-valued feedback and bring in their own ideas.
What are the next steps on your way into care and the rheumatology market?
We aim for market entry with a certified product in 2023. On our way there, we are constantly iterating and optimizing our solution and invite interested patients to be part of our journey. In other words, people who don’t want to wait for the public launch can join rheumio. already today and create an impact together with us. Furthermore, we are validating our business model to ensure a free-of-charge access to the products main features for patients and are in advanced talks with insurance companies and other health care providers regarding that point.
What were the biggest successes and main challenges on your journey so far?
I think, from an impact perspective, the biggest successes we had were definitely the amazing user feedback we received so far from patients who already really benefited from the usage of rheumio. in our testing activities as well as the exchange in our social media communities. Probably the biggest, constant challenge, and I’m sure most health startups will agree on that, is the extremely long product development and market entry cycles associated with high regulatory barriers, medical quality requirements, and complex market access into the healthcare system. This certainly requires resilience and a strong partner network to really gain a foothold in rheumatology.
Talking about co-operations: What kind of partners were crucial for you on your journey?
Since various stakeholders are involved in the treatment of rheumatic diseases, it is generally important to build a strong and broad network here. I would particularly emphasize patients and their advocacy groups, rheumatologists and payers such as health insurers or companies from the medical industry. Access to these stakeholders can be extremely difficult, especially in the very early stage of a startup. At this point, I would like to highlight the value of multiplier networks such as the Digital Rheumatology Network, which enabled exchange with key players at eye level at early stages for us. That’s been of significant importance for us in order to gain an initial foothold in the industry.
What was the support from the Digital Rheumatology Network like?
Funnily enough, in my particular case, Professor Hügle was the first person I talked to about the idea of entering the field of digital rheumatology back in 2020. Subsequently, we had a really good exchange and received regular feedback regarding our ideation process and the evidence-based approach that we follow. For example, a joint podcast episode and a first speaker slot at an event gave us some visibility in the industry at a very early stage. In addition, we were able to benefit from support with scientific funding as well as networking with opinion leaders in the field of rheumatology at the Digital Rheumatology Day. In summary, it can already be said here that the Digital Rheumatology Network has enabled us with its platform for exchange and has partially opened doors, for which we are very grateful.
Great to hear that we had an impact on your journey. Since you already went to some processes on your journey: What would you recommend to other founders, who aim to start a business in digital health?
As mentioned earlier, I believe that in an industry like rheumatology, a strong network is essential to successfully bring solutions to care. Here, I would definitely recommend talking to all relevant parties as early as possible to get a first substantiated impression of the market and to get contacts in the right directions. Among other support programs, offers from the Digital Rheumatology Network are a super way to get a first foot in the door.
Besides that: Keep your heads up and don’t let frustration get in the way of your mission. Especially at the beginning, the digital health industry can be very frustrating, but it’s worth it to remain persistent because the impact you can have with your idea is really something worth striving for.
That’s a nice closing. Thank you very much for the interview and good luck for everything that is next for you and Digital Rheuma Lab!!