In the recently concluded Techventure 2016, an anchor event at SWITCH 2016, I met Dr. John Heng, Director and Co-founder/Inventor and Dr. Subhasis Banerji, the MD and Co-founder/Inventor of SynPhNe, who spoke passionately about how their company is changing the way stroke rehabilitation is done in patients and helping in accelerating their recovery.
In an interview with Biotechin.Asia, Dr. Subhasis Banerji explains to us about their product and the lessons he learnt in their 10-year old journey from idea to a product launch.
What does SynPhNe do and what is its core product?
Mission: To improve the lives of brain-muscle impaired people across social and economic strata and be a $100million company by 2020.
Vision: To make Synphne a first line of prevention and treatment for non-communicable chronic disease and disability by 2030.
The core of the product range is SynPhNe (abbreviation for Synergistic Physio Neuro platform) which is a combination of sensing electronics and learning software which helps re-wire the brain. Our products are as follows:
- SynPhNe XPert – for franchise training centres to train people for home use
- SynPhNe eNabl – for home use
- SynPhNe Bedside – for those who are bedridden at hospitals/nursing homes
Is it backed by solid research? How is your wearable helping or being a value-add for the patients ?
SynPhNe has completed a total of 4 trials in Singapore and India covering nearly 600 therapy hours. It has been under research and development for nearly 10 years and has received prestigious research grants from National Medical Research Council, National research Foundation and Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMART). It has been approached by Harvard Medical School to do a pilot study in the USA.
One of the dreaded words that stroke rehabilitation patients encounter during treatment is the word ‘plateau’. Usually after a stroke, rapid recovery occurs during the first three months and then progress slows down, leading to a ‘plateau’.
Patients who have plateaued are unable to understand what has arrested the recovery process. Synphne makes visible on a computer screen, which unconscious, non-obvious brain-muscle reactions are hampering recovery. These reactions are then subdued using the Synphne dynamic relaxation protocol. Patients have recovered upto 70% of hand function after 4-6 weeks of using SynPhNe. Many have broken out of plateaus 5 years or more after suffering a stroke.
What is your view about exoskeletons as assistive devices in rehabilitating patients?
Exoskeleton design is in its infancy from the mechanical engineering and control engineering aspect. At the moment, it seems to be an assistive device (patients can move while wearing the device) rather than a rehabilitative tool (patients become independent of the device and can move on their own).
Exoskeletons add several variables to an already impaired arm or leg and do not as yet address the root of the disability problem – the sub-conscious tendency of human beings to first adapt towards compensation at brain and muscle levels rather than correction and re-learning. Exoskeletons are also, for the moment, too expensive and complex for elderly to use at home.
Who are the target audience for your wearable?
For the moment, these are adults who have suffered a stroke or are at a risk of stroke but in future – all children, adults and elderly suffering from brain-muscle difficulties (Cerebral Palsy, Dyslexia, Autism, Traumatic brain injury, post neurosurgery, early Dementia) and chronic diseases such as hypertension and stress disorders will be our target audience. So far, SynPhNe has been tried successfully in the age group 7 years upto 80 years, from 7 days after stroke upto more than 5 years after the event.
How much is the product priced? How is it cost-effective compared to a normal therapy session?
The product brings to the customer daily therapy (30 sessions/month) for the price of 4-5 therapy sessions at a hospital per month, which is what most people are able to access and afford. In addition, it will save travel, the need for a family member to take time off from work and provide a clearer understanding of the therapy process and roadmap which manual therapy does not provide in a typical home exercise scenario which most plateaued patients are on.
We hope to introduce the product on a monthly rental model in Singapore for the multi-user model (for use at therapy/training centres) and the single-user model (home use).
When are you going to launch your product and where?
The product is in its pre-launch phase in India with a franchise centre being set up. This will be followed by a launch in Singapore once we have regulatory approval.
Expected pilot roll-out is November 2016.
How has the response been so far?
SynPhNe has reached people through clinical trials in two countries as well as workshops conducted in Singapore, India and USA. Response has been overwhelming with patients waiting for our product launch for the past two years and following up diligently.
We have also had patients approach us for solutions to autism, parkinsons disease, multiple sclerosis, etc. So there is a hunger in the market for a technology which provides clarity on what’s going on inside our heads and bodies and to help train these in the right direction in an easy-to-understand manner.
What is the business/revenue model of the company? Is it going to be a B2B or B2C?
There are two aspects to the business model – for those people who are in hospital or nursing homes, we shall market our bedside version in a B2B manner.
For those living at home, we shall distribute and provide training through scalable franchise centres so that the device is available close to the community. This is also a initial B2B which will later translate into a B2C relationship as the customer becomes independent and decides to train for higher levels of function and creativity. This is especially path-breaking for those having lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy.
We are now in the middle of raising Series A funding. We are setting up subsidiaries in India (by Nov, 2016) and the USA (early 2017) and become the first global Singaporean rehabilitation technology company by 2018. Our formal patent spans across 12 countries in Asia and Europe, with USA and Australia soon to follow.
Your thoughts on biotech and healthcare startups in India/Asia, in general?
There is a huge amount of activity in this sphere in Asia. This region is a great place to develop disruptive solutions because an innovator faces the entire gamut of scenarios ranging from poor infrastructure (India) to great infrastructure (Singapore), from poor affordability to the extremely affluent, from shoddy connectivity to world class 4G, a hundred different languages and cultures and a mix of rural and urban settings. While money for research is limited, regulatory barriers and costs for prototype development are lower.
The investment landscape has rapidly grown as well, although most Asian investors are risk averse and are more likely to fund in early revenue generators rather than disruptive innovators.
Asia still has a 20th century hangover of trying to assess technologies from a USA/Europe market perspective, rather than giving priority to those solutions which solve problems that are local and substantial. For example, nearly 60% of all stroke incidences occur in Asia and the market is already worth several billions in India and Singapore alone.
The ageing population in Asia is now close to outnumbering the entire population of USA and Europe combined, thus redefining markets and tech strategies going forward. Many USA based VCs are now looking towards investments in Asia focused entities and confident about investing in countries like Singapore which provides taxation, arbitration and IP protection benefits.
But much more needs to be done by both public and private sectors. One must weigh the consequences of NOT taking investment risks against the looming challenges facing all governments due to ageing and galloping numbers of the disabled and dependent in this region which is already impacting national productivity, social stability and global spending on health.
Is collaborative research the way out for healthcare startups?
Only collaboration can work, but not just collaboration between research institutions, tech and distribution companies as is commonly believed. The collaborations must now involve the social sectors and community based agencies in a big way as more and more countries are trying to solve the problems through these routes, including mature markets such as the USA. The eco-system now includes as much the arts as the sciences, the frontiers of innovation are changing in the field of healthcare in general and for rehabilitation in particular.
Any advice for biotech/healthcare startups? How has your startup journey been as a founder?
The journey from concept to product has taken 10 years. True disruption is seldom a 2-3 year story, because it disrupts not just how people use a technology but also how it needs to go-to-market and is sold and distributed.
We spent two years just studying our customers even before we finalized the product design brief. We understood how they feel, what they expect, how they buy, how they use technology at home. The solution was so simple that I was nearly denied my PhD, the argument being how could a simple solution solve such a complex problem.
How could so-called “impaired” people have the power to heal themselves and drive their own recovery? It was only after the clinical results emphatically proved the point that it was accepted first at an academic level and then, by those on the cutting edge of medical practice such as Harvard Medical School.
The clever thing was to drive all the complexity of brain-muscle re-learning into the backend of the technology, leaving the end user with a very simple, easy-to-use experience.
After understanding the customer and socio-economic aspects of your business, build a team of workers and advisors who fill unique business holes. While we have a great full-time team, each one of our angel investors brings passion for our mission to the table along with key capabilities in healthcare, clinical practice, data analytics, branding, business, company building, supply chain and global distribution.
Build awareness about benefits and educate customers about a new way of doing things, which your solution promotes. We have been engaged with live workshops, social media, CMEs in hospitals, clinical trials and conference presentations for the past 3 years and more.
Be ready for a rocky ride and prepare to innovate and re-innovate at the drop of a hat because the healthcare industry is undergoing a massive upheaval with markets, regulatory agencies, funds flow, investment climates and clinical priorities rapidly transforming on a global scale.
Now that we are so close to the final product and distribution/scale up way forward, we look forward to investors and collaborators who will help realize a local and global dream which can transform how people manage and solve the greatest crisis and pain point facing the human race in this century – long term disability and dependence.
With more than a billion of the earth’s population is now living with disability, the business numbers speak for themselves, particularly for a technology that can be used at home and solves the problem at a fundamental brain-muscle level.
Our next immediate challenge is to gain regulatory approval (for Singapore/USA) and funding to increase team size for launch (starting with our first franchise centre in India later this year).
“Maybe if you tell people the Brain is an App, they will start using it”- ANON