SME profile: Dubai start-up incubator taking on weighty issue of health

Marc Choufani and his partners set up OLEA, a holding company aimed at incubating healthcare businesses, the first project of which is De Novu Institute, located at Umm Al Sheif in Dubai.

Marc Choufani says the idea for his new business germinated a few years ago, following Abu Dhabi’s Weqaya report, while he was working as an executive in Mubadala Development’s healthcare division.

That report was rather shocking: the government study, carried out over several years and screening hundreds of thousands of Abu Dhabi’s residents, found that its population was in the middle of a non-communicable disease “crisis”, with a particularly high risk of cardiovascular disease and the world’s second-highest prevalence of pre-diabetes.

In a presentation to the World Health Organisation in 2011, the authors of the Weqaya (Arabic for prevention) report forecast that healthcare costs would balloon if preventative measures were not taken, with direct costs for treating diabetes alone doubling in the decade to 2020, to Dh3 billion and the societal costs running many times greater.

Abu Dhabi has made great strides in developing its healthcare system in the years since the report, including delivering the Cleveland Clinic on Al Maryah Island, a project that was led by Mr Choufani, and there are ambitious plans to develop Abu Dhabi and Dubai as regional healthcare hubs.

But spending in the UAE still lags behind other rich countries and at 4 per cent of GDP per head is only half the OECD average. There is still much to do on the prevention and wellness front, Mr Choufani says.

Working at Mubadala Healthcare for seven years from 2007 “reinforced for me that prevention and wellness is an important space in health care and that very little was being done here in the region”, he says.

He and partners set up OLEA, a holding company aimed at incubating healthcare businesses, the first project of which is the De Novu Institute, at Umm Al Sheif in Dubai.

How will it be different from other weight-loss clinics?

“We are not after the casual weight-loss market,” Mr Choufani says. “We are not looking for individuals who are looking to lose 2 kilograms or 5kg, we are not actively seeking those individuals, but people who have significant weight-loss needs, 10kg to 30kg, 40kg, 50kg.”

In looking for a model to follow and a partner, Mr Choufani found Institut de Varga in Paris, which could be said to take a fundamentalist approach to weight loss. It starts with a “remise en cause”, whereby clients take a good hard look at themselves and embark on “dietary rehabilitation”, which includes one-on-one coaching and a fair amount of psychological nurturing.

“They have been doing weight loss for the past 15 years and it was their approach and outcomes that impressed me,” Mr Choufani says. “Weight loss as a market is highly penetrated in Dubai – there is no shortage of gyms, healthy meal plan companies, personal training, hospitals offering weight-loss programmes. But in their programme only 23 per cent regained the weight. That’s what was interesting to me.” De Novu Institute started taking members in November, with a monthly membership fee running at Dh3,750 for its personalised programme.

“The nature of weight-loss service providers – not just in Dubai – is that they’re mostly transactional in nature. If you’re a meal plan provider you want them to keep buying meal plans. If you’re a nutritionist you want people to keep coming to see you. The business model is not necessarily aimed at achieving an objective. We’re not about weight loss but about transforming an individual’s life so they can live a sustainable lifestyle, so they can keep the weight off,” Mr Choufani says.

A background in management consultancy made de Varga’s data-driven and holistic approach attractive.

“We will measure the impact on clients and hold ourselves accountable,” Mr Choufani says.

More broadly, he sees the healthcare market moving firmly in the direction of prevention and wellness now that the case has been made.

“It was the single most striking takeaway not just from the Weqaya report, but looking at healthcare trends globally and the fact that 70 to 80 per cent of spending goes into hospitals to treat people when they are sick, it became obvious to me that not enough effort was being put into globally chronic diseases that are highly correlated to lifestyle.”

OLEA has a second incubating business in the prevention and wellness space that it expects to roll out this year.


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