When patients have suffered a stroke or severe brain injuries, they need intense rehabilitation therapy to recover as fast as possible. However, in healthcare systems around the world, there are not enough medical professionals available, and sometimes patients cannot afford to pay for expensive therapy sessions. A new technological solution by the startup SynPhNe could change this: The startup, with headquarters in Singapore and India, has developed a wearable device which enables patients to conduct rehab exercises at home. In this interview with 5-HT, co-founder and Managing Director Dr. Subhasis Banerji explains how the technology of SynPhNe strengthens the connection between brain and body and how it can help people to live an independent life again.
What is the idea of SynPhNe?
SynPhNe is an abbreviation for Synergistic Physio Neuro Platform. We have developed a wearable device which captures neurological and muscle signals during rest and movement. This data can be used very effectively to help people overcome conditions of various types. Our customers are for example patients who have had a stroke, people with traumatic brain injuries after an accident, children who have learning difficulties in school, or elderly people who face early dementia or early Parkinson’s-like symptoms. Wherever there is a disconnection between brain and body, we strengthen this connection and help our patients to generate specific movements, from holding a spoon to reading and writing to playing a musical instrument.
How does your wearable device work?
The patient wears the device on his head and his forearm. With sensors, we collect data about brain activity and physical muscle activity while the patient tries to execute a task, for example folding a sheet of paper. The software reads these signals in real-time and identifies which reactions are supporting or restricting the intended movement. Based on this, our software offers a series of exercises which allow to change these reactions. Step by step, the patient moves forward from easier to more complicated tasks. All these exercises require not only motor but also cognitive skills. By using these exercises, we are for example able to train people to not only engage with upper limb activity but also to gain their balance back, to walk better, to start talking again, and finally to become completely independent. One to six months of therapy with SynPhNe are usually enough for patients to become largely independent – and we have worked with patients who have suffered from a condition for ten to fifteen years.
For example, how can SynPhNe help patients who have suffered a stroke?
A stroke affects many different neurological and physiological aspects – your movements, your physical sensations, your balance, and sometimes also your way of thinking and your ability to speak. When the patient puts on our device for the first time, an assessment of his individual condition is conducted. The software asks the patient to perform an exercise, for example to pick something up, and afterwards gives us an indication where to start with our training program. After a few sessions, we ask the patient to set his top three goals for the next three months. Some want to be able to eat on their own, some want to be able to walk without walking aid or to go to the toilet by themselves. Then, we start working on these activities in a specific manner, identifying the reactions that are obstructing the movements and using exercises to change these reactions. Soon, the patients realize they can perform some everyday tasks again, and they move forward to higher and higher goals, including returning to their previous profession or hobby.
How do you make use of the data that is collected by the wearable device?
The device captures many different types of data about what kind of exercises were performed, how often and how well they were executed. The patients using our device from home can decide to share their data with one of our doctors. By looking at the reports, our neurologist or rehab professional can see how the patient is progressing and can decide which exercises to remove or to integrate. If the condition is not too severe, the patient can also choose to create his own exercise routine. As soon as he finishes the easier tasks, he can automatically proceed to the more challenging exercises.
What are the benefits of enabling patients to do their rehab exercises at home?
In many countries, there are simply not enough medical professionals to take care of the large number of patients. This is a serious problem, especially in countries with growing populations or in countries like Singapore and Japan with aging populations where the need for therapy will grow even bigger in the next years. If you depend on a hospital for rehab, it is almost impossible to get daily support – although research shows that the best clinical results are achieved when patients do guided rehab exercises every day. Furthermore, in many countries of the world, rehab is not covered by insurance, or at best at the subacute state. For example, in Singapore a therapy session costs 100 to 250 dollars, whereas one session with SynPhNe only costs 20 to 30 dollars. Our product makes good therapy affordable for a large number of people. Because the data of the wearable devices is saved on the cloud, the patient can consult one of our medical experts from everywhere in the world. For example, we have an expert in dyslexia who lives in South Africa, but regularly supervises patients in the United States. Because there is no physical presence required, cost is drastically reduced. However, our software is also used in hospitals and in our own rehab centers and franchises. But still, the main focus of our business model is to put as many home devices into the community as possible.
How did the idea for SynPhNe develop?
In 1998, I was suffering from a brain injury after a car accident, and my hip had to be reconstructed. My physical and neurological condition was very bad. It took me three years to become reasonably mobile again and ten years to recover completely. Previously, I was running my own engineering business, but as soon as I had recovered partially in 2004, I started to work as a therapist. In 2007, I started building the technology for SynPhNe together with my co-founder Dr. John Heng. In 2014, we officially founded our company. At that time, I had also completed my Ph.D. on this subject. Until 2018, we were busy developing our product. In 2018, we finally launched our product in Singapore, and in 2019 also in India.
What are your next steps?
At the moment, we focus mainly on Asia and the United States. We are working on spreading our franchise model first in India and Singapore, then in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia – starting with the therapy for stroke patients, followed by the programs for other conditions. In 2020, we will also execute a pilot commercial launch in the United States. Our market entry into Europa is planned for later this year or next year. So far, we are funded by business angels, but by the end of this year our business in India will start to be profitable. Because SynPhNe is expanding, we are also looking for new team members, both inside and outside of Asia – exceptional people who are excited about social impact. We are proud to say that in the last 12 years we have not lost a single member of our team.
What are your biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge is to change people’s mindset. Today, patients are not used to take medical technology home. They need to be convinced that they can improve their condition with our product, even though there is no therapist immediately present. Secondly, we are educating doctors and physiotherapists about our product to let them understand how it works and how patients can benefit from it. Another big challenge is funding: Getting financial support can be complicated with an idea like ours which is very new and disruptive – as it is not only a new technology, but also a new service model.
What does your vision for the future look like?
My personal vision is to have SynPhNe in every house by 2030. Similar to a television which provides information, education, and entertainment for every member of the family, SynPhNe will be a lifestyle device designed to improve the family’s health: The child can use it if it has difficulties concentrating at school, the parents can use it when they have high blood pressure or have suffered a stroke, the grandparents can use it when they want to fight early signs of dementia or Parkinsons. We believe that with SynPhNe we have a very powerful tool not only for rehabilitation, but also for prevention. Our main goal is to help people to become independent and get their lives back!