Start-ups sprout from this clinic

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2011 - 8:09 PM

The Sister Kenny Research Center helps start-ups with grant applications, clinical trials and manufacturing prototypes and provides access to medical experts, in exchange for equity stakes in the companies. The center also develops prototypes for ideas developed by therapists within the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.

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Patients have been testing the SKOTEE device, a concept founded by Sister Kenny occupational therapists. SKOTEE is a robot that tracks whether patients are doing their physical therapy exercises at home. Matt White, an occupational therapist and instructor, has been showing patients how the robot works.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Imagine a robot that can check on recovering stroke patients, remind them to do exercises -- even update therapists about their progress.

Meet SKOTEE.

The robot is one of the latest inventions being developed at the Sister Kenny Research Center in Minneapolis, a division of the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. The center, which opened in 2007, assists start-ups interested in medical technology through grants and expertise from Sister Kenny clinicians. In return, Sister Kenny takes an equity stake in the start-ups and gathers ideas on how to improve patient care.

The center also develops its own concepts and provides funding to advance these ideas. It uses the money to help clinicians construct prototypes like SKOTEE.

"We help build value and take out risk in the early phase of these start-up companies, and we can provide the connection with the clinical world," said Lars Oddsson, the center's director of research. "That's the expertise we bring to the table."

At 32 inches tall, SKOTEE can recognize patients' faces while helping them with an assortment of functions. The robot works with a large joystick-like device that patients use to strengthen and exercise their arm muscles. If they don't do the task, SKOTEE will remind them later and update their occupational therapists.

Researchers and therapists at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute conceived the idea for SKOTEE two years ago. It's crucial for patients to repeat physical therapy exercises at home so their brains are retrained on how to use those muscles, but it can be tough to get patients to follow through.

SKOTEE could solve that problem. Matthew White, one of the occupational therapists who came up with the idea for SKOTEE, said people can have an emotional bond with robots that is similar to household pets, and therefore be more likely to use the device. Besides nudging patients to do their workouts, SKOTEE could have other features such as letting patients play music or read electronic books on its system.

The research center helped bring SKOTEE to life with an initial budget of $5,000 to $10,000. It provided graduate students to help build a prototype and paid for the materials. Several patients from the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute tested a model of SKOTEE this month. Based on the user feedback, the center will determine which types of features will need to be refined or added, White said.

It will be years before SKOTEE will make it to the market. The medical device would need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Oddsson said the Sister Kenny Research Center is unique because it provides access to patients, graduate students and clinicians who can provide expertise at a lower cost. Several medical device start-ups in Minnesota have had trouble raising venture capital, a necessity in funding the expensive research and development needed to bring a product to market.

"With thousands of dollars, we can get to a proof of concept as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars externally," Oddsson said.

Oddsson said the center is looking to support ideas and medical technology start-ups that help with wellness, prevention and cost containment. The center also is working on setting up a seed fund for research and development in this area.

"If a device can't contain cost in the current health environment, chances are we're not going to pursue it," Oddsson said.

For example, RxFunction, a company Oddsson co-founded, is developing a product that aims to help patients who are at risk of falling. The product, called "walkasins," is a thin shoe sole insert that slides into a patient's shoe or sock. The walkasin is connected to a cuff that goes around the patient's lower leg. When the patient is off balance, it triggers the sole's pressure sensors. That causes the cuff to vibrate, alerting the patient that he or she needs to rebalance. The company believes the product could help hospitals better manage patients at risk of falling, potentially saving thousands of dollars per patient.

Since the research center opened in 2007, none of the ideas generated has been sold on the market or licensed out, but it can take years to bring medical devices to market. The center's budget is based on grants and continued financial support from the Sister Kenny Foundation, the institute's philanthropic arm. The foundation raised $2.8 million for the center.

In the next three years Oddsson hopes the center will be less reliant on charity. Instead, he is aiming to get a return on the companies the center has invested in.

"The hope is that the innovation process will help solve these clinical needs," Oddsson said.

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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