This South Korean startup aims to provide stroke patients with an affordable alternative to costly rehabilitation programs.
When Ban Ho Young was a university student, his father passed away after suffering a stroke. Shortly thereafter, two of his uncles survived strokes and joined the tens of thousands of South Korean stroke patients undertaking rehabilitation therapy. That process, both costly and time-consuming, was too much for Ban’s family to endure – his uncles dropped out of their rehabilitation programs before regaining full use of their hands.
Ban estimates that nearly 85% of South Koreans who start stroke rehabilitation leave their programs before completion. Patients face a difficult trade-off of pros and cons. Inpatient care is effective in rehabilitating stroke survivors, but it costs about $17,130 per year after insurance. Outpatient care, while much cheaper, yields less reliable improvements and requires travel to and from facilities several times each week.
“Survival rates are rising, which is great news, of course,” said Ban, “But there aren’t enough physical therapists and the system just can’t cope.” In 2010, Ban decided that something needed to be done to improve rehabilitation results for stroke patients. His startup Neofect has developed and marketed a smart glove called Rapael, which allows for daily home rehabilitation at a price that most patients can afford.
Rapael looks like a next-generation video game controller, because in effect, that’s what it is. Sensors within the glove monitor movement in the forearm, wrist, and fingers to provide inputs for games included in the glove’s software. Patients twist their forearms and bend their wrists and fingers to fish or catch baseballs in a game setup similar to Wii Sports. Ban feels that gamification is the most important aspect of the new device.
“Just moving someone’s hand in a certain way won’t improve that person’s condition because a large part of rehab takes place in the brain,” Ban explained. “We see a lot of focus on the clinical side of things and not enough on the motivational.”
The games provide patients with a much-needed boost of enthusiasm, but their real value is twofold. The startup collects data from each session to tailor regimens for each patient, and already employs a handful of data scientists to crunch the numbers. Data on how many baseballs a patient is able to catch in one hour can show a discouraged patient that they are, in fact, improving. It also gives Neofect clues about how to improve its game.
Data analysis is where Neofect hopes to best competitors, some of which offer Kinect-style gaming or console-based exercises. Companies like Limbs Alive offer products that require patients to hold controllers from the start, and because progress is measured locally, there’s no big data to mine for effective rehab programs.
Ban founded Neofect in 2010 with Young Choi, a former classmate at KAIST. With degrees in both computer science and robotics, Choi was an obvious choice for CTO, and he began developing Rapael on his own. Ban, meanwhile, finished his MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and returned to the startup as CEO in 2011.
Since then, the company has completed a string of funding rounds, beginning with $120,000 from the South Korean government and culminating in $3.93 million in a series A round from POSCO, DSC Investments, SBI Korea, and Sejong Venture Partners. To date, Neofect has received a total of US$4.96 million in funding, and has grown to 42 staff members.
Last December, Neofect launched Rapael and began the climb to profitability. After four years of development and testing, the smart glove was offered to hospitals and rehabilitation centers in South Korea, the first stage of Ban’s marketing scheme. “Every stroke patient begins in the hospital, so that’s where our exposure will be best,” Ban said, “Once we have the endorsement from hospitals and doctors, we can continue selling to individual patients.”
Out of the hospital, into the living room
So far, that plan seems to be working. Neofect has shipped 20 Rapael units to hospitals and rehabilitation centers around South Korea. The $10,000 smart glove/software combination is now in use at the nation’s top hospitals and rehab centers, like the Seoul National University Hospital, the Samsung Medical Center, and the National Rehabilitation Center. Ban says that early feedback has been positive, but that the team needs to be thinking a few steps ahead.
“The truth is, we know that the hospital market is limited,” he admitted, “We can’t grow with a B2B [business-to-business] model, so we need to move into B2C [business-to-consumer] as soon as possible.” Direct consumer sales will begin early next year, once the software has been adapted for home use. Neofect will begin renting Rapael to patients for about $85 per month, making the cost of rehab as manageable as a cellphone bill. Ban projects that the company will have 900 home users while beta testing over the next year.
If Neofect is to succeed, however, it will need a strong start in the larger US market. Compared with South Korea’s 100,000 new stroke patients each year, the United States typically has about 700,000 patients each year, of whom 80% require rehabilitation. The company has already incorporated in Los Angeles and will move to San Jose later this year to start marketing Rapael in Silicon Valley. American insurance companies often limit rehabilitation coverage to only two months. This makes affordable home rehab particularly appealing for most of the United States’ three to four million recent stroke patients.
“The American healthcare system is…well, it’s different,” Ban said, “Rapael has potential there because medical costs are so high and there are so many stroke patients.”
For now, Ban and Choi are focused on improving Rapael and building Neofect’s game library. Though Ban is open to working with third-party game developers, he insists that simply adding smart glove command inputs to a separately developed game won’t achieve the rehabilitation goals that Neofect is shooting for.
“Everything we have now has been made with rehabilitation experts and game designers working side by side,” Ban concluded, “Understanding the connection between rehab and motivational games is what will set us apart.”
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.
Featured Image Credit: PR Screenshot/ Neofect