03 May 2016   |   News

Digital health start-ups are poised to make an impact

A new wave of entrepreneurs aims to bring healthcare into the digital age. Innovations on show at last week’s iMinds conference will assist health and social care professionals, cut costs, make hospitals more efficient and empower patients

Pieter Simoens, professor in the Internet Technologies Department of Ghent University, makes a few taps on his tablet and a tiny little robot wheels towards a patient sitting in a chair.

The care robot, developed by Flemish company QBMT, is designed to help look after the elderly and disabled. It is supposed to have a soothing effect, said Simoens, who calls it a digital pet.

The robot shuffles along quite slowly, guided by motion sensors. It could probably perform better if it had a sensor on its head, but that would make it too ugly, Simoens said.

QBMT’s small, mechanical aides have been phenomenally successful and are being used in 200 facilities in Europe, the US, Japan and Australia.

But surely people prefer to be cared for by a human? “That would be paradise,” said Simoens. “But, it’s an issue of economics. We have a lot of care homes and the nurse only has so many hands.” His goal is to have a working prototype for his robot sometime this year. Pilot projects are being set up in two Ghent nursing homes.

Simoens was one of hundreds presenting their ideas at the iMinds conference in Brussels last week.

Healthcare is an old industry slowly catching up with the digital world, said Thibault Verhoeven, a PhD student in neuroscience in Ghent University. “Our generation is more willing to import new technologies.”

Verhoeven’s project Epilog aims to improve the diagnosis of epilepsy. For a fee of €500, Epilog’s software analyses the brain’s electrical activity and beams doctors a feed within one hour. The data highlight areas with abnormal spike activity, which helps doctors work out the odds of a seizure. “We take out a lot of the work for neurologists and let them focus on diagnoses,” said Verhoeven.

The Ghent-based team is testing the system in five labs – two in Belgium, two in the US and one in Turkey.

Eva Degraeuwe, a medical student in Ghent University, presented EVapp (Emergency Volunteer Application), a non-profit alarm system for smartphones that sends alerts to emergency responders. A victim of a heart attack, or more likely a bystander, presses the EVapp, which calls for an ambulance and alerts anyone with CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) training in the neighbourhood to come rushing to the scene.

It is being trialled in several small Belgian towns. Degraeuwe and her team recruit volunteers through care organisations such as the Red Cross. In emergencies, time counts. It takes an ambulance eight minutes on average to arrive to an accident in a city; it’s 14 in rural areas, said Degraeuwe.

“Every minute that passes, it’s a 10 per cent less likelihood of survival,” Degraeuwe said. If a victim could receive CPR from one of the volunteers, their survival chances would be increased.

Heart attacks claim a lot of lives in Belgium. “Of the 10,000 people that have a heart attack each year, only 900 survive, or 9 per cent,” Degraeuwe said.  

New noses

Jan Derboven, a senior research at the Meaningful Interactions lab in KU Leuven, creates prosthetic noses and limbs using a 3D printer. His application, not yet on the market, is called Nose. The 3D printed results are more realistic than the current state of the art in prostheses, Derboven claims.

“What used to be clinical can now be more aesthetic,” he said. He foresees a day when scientists will email prosthetic templates to patients anywhere in the world.

The technology is also aimed at plastic surgeons, who currently use the picture editor Adobe Photoshop to create before and after images. However, this is limited to 2D. “It’s hard to talk about how your nose will change after an operation. 3D images give you more realism,” said Derboven.

Heart monitor

Quompium, a start up from the University of Hasselt and another entrant in the Belgian medical app scene, monitors heart rates by scanning your finger with a smartphone.

You press the smartphone camera lens gently with your finger and, after some seconds, an online report appears, ready for reviewing. The application can detect atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder, responsible for one in five strokes.

This empowers patients to control their own health and can also alert doctors if there are problems, “We are detecting relapse victims earlier,” said Valentino D'Onofrio, a biomedical student in the University of Hasselt. “We detected someone one day after their treatment. Without our device, he would have had to wait five weeks for his next check-up with his cardiologist.”

The team is currently awaiting regulatory approval to market the device in Europe and is finishing a clinical study with 50 patients. If successful, the application will sell for €20 or €30, said D'Onofrio.

DNA cruncher

Meanwhile Ugentec, from the same biotechnology incubator as Quompium, is selling a new tool to crunch sequence data.

Ugentec’s software can evaluate DNA samples in just a few minutes, which is around 30 times faster than the typical manual effort. It also interprets DNA more accurately than existing techniques.

“A molecular scientist’s time is expensive,” says Thomas Beuls, account manager. “We’ve seen this kind of work taking up 15 people’s time.”

Ugentec has clients in Belgium and the Netherlands and the goal is to reach 50 labs this year. The comopany has received training and cash from a swath of incubators, including iMinds, Bryo, EIT Digital and Microsoft Innovation Center Flanders.

Eye in the sky

Aorta, a health technology project managed by iMinds and KU Leuven, has developed a programme to help hospitals hit their quality goals. Demonstrating the system, Wim Vancroonenburg, a computer scientist in KU Leuven, points to a screen full of dots milling around, digitally tracking the performance of health workers. Green circles are patients, blue circles are employees.

“You can use this tech to optimise the many logistic flows in a hospital,” said Vancroonenburg. A nurse on a corridor could be instructed to make a slight deviation to pick up a patient he or she meets on the way, for instance.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up