digital health watch on wrist

On a global level, Switzerland is taking a leading role in the medical technology sector. In no other country does the Med Tech/MedTech sector contribute as much to the gross domestic product (GDP) as in Switzerland. When it comes to industrial transformation, the arrival of unrelated newcomers is typical of digital disruption. In the world of MedTech, the watch industry is proving to be an unlikely incumbent. Connected watches, with their new technologies and their new business models, have come to disrupt the watch industry- bringing medical devices and watch-making technologies closer than ever before.

This is not the first time that the watch industry has been affected by newcomers; we remember another revolution that affected this industry in the late 70s: the advent of quartz watches. The mechanical watch, normally providing information about time, date, the moon phases, or the movement of the planets for the most complicated ones, is being challenged by new platforms integrating the most diverse and complex digital applications, increasingly souped-up with medical-grade sensor technology to track temperature, heart rate, activity, altitude, and even blood glucose. So, how is the watch industry disrupting healthcare and what can digital health learn from watchmaking and the fine instruments trade?

Business models based on consumerization and precision

Watch companies, unlike technology companies, have learned to build their watches from the inside out and tend to use simple and profitable processes at the base, then dress them up by adding value. Watchmakers know how to produce and make a profit on specific small batches using components made in the millions. In the late 20th century, a number of companies that made watch parts realized they could use their existing expertise and increase their profits by diversifying into high-precision medical devices. Fascinated to see their skills used to heal, they began manufacturing implants, peristaltic pumps, and other medical products. With dental implants, for example, we find the link between function and aesthetics an important strength of the watch industry that has historically led to the manufacture of luxury and prestige equipment. Capturing and processing parameters that are important for our health must be done reliably, but also elegantly!

Skills and Knowledge

Thanks to the legacy of the watch industry, there is a great deal of specialized technical know-how available which can provide value to the MedTech industry. It is therefore natural for large MedTech companies to come to Switzerland to take advantage of this know-how, bring in additional skills, create jobs, and develop new innovative products in collaboration with local industry and academia. It is relatively easy to attract top executives of multinationals to Switzerland, as the country is considered a good place to raise children and has excellent international schools.

Generations of experience in metalworking combined with high-precision engineering skills have made watchmakers the spearheads of miniaturization in mechanics, but also in microelectronics, MEMS and others. All of these dynamics make Switzerland one to watch when thinking about the future of personalized medical devices and digital health.

Precision is in their genes!

The quality of training in the precision professions is extremely high and still motivates a large number of young people to become micro-mechanics, bar turners, watchmakers, polishers, finishers in watch decoration, dial makers, jewelers, engravers, or enamellers. The screw-cutters, for example, machine millions of screws of less than 1mm and then do precise threading and drilling inside. For these people, something like a dental implant seems huge in comparison and the quality of the work is therefore guaranteed vs other cheaper, mass production technologies.

Materials engineering and quality

Wearing a metal object on the skin for hours on end is not always comfortable. Watch components are constantly in motion, so various materials had to be researched, developed, or processed to meet the needs of customers. Titanium was used to make the watch lighter and less allergenic; stones were used to avoid friction in the bearings, tungsten was used for the oscillating weights, and various alloys and composite materials were developed that are found in today’s watches. Surface treatment by anodizing, gold plating, treating, surfacing, laser engraving, and others are common operations in watchmaking and often necessary in the medical field (adhesion, biocompatibility, marking, …)

With the aim of guaranteeing quality, these standards are a familiar element for the most advanced players in the industry, for whom medical certification becomes an additional step in a quality system that in some cases already includes automotive and aerospace standards.

What’s next for the future?

Technologies from the watchmaking industry, already used in part in the medical field, have the potential to transform this field with possibilities of further miniaturization, integration of microelectronics, sensors, communication between implants and the outside world (IoT), energy harvesting, or the use of implantable micro-motors and micro-pumps.

The ecosystem that you will find at DayOne, in the Basel Area, will allow you to develop products at the interface between the watchmaking and pharmaceutical industries, within an ecosystem that includes world-leading academia, universities, and hospitals in the middle of Europe- the world’s largest market for medical devices. The region provides access to 3 leading economies which are ranked among the top 5 digital health markets in Europe. Learn more about the Basel Area ecosystem here.