The Mindmate team

Meet the tech firms helping tackle health demands

We caught up with some of the UK tech sector’s most disruptive businesses to hear how they’re helping tackle pressing health problems…

The UK’s dynamic tech sector is helping find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing health problems from air pollution to diabetes, obesity and mental health issues.

We caught up with some of the sectors most disruptive businesses to find out how they launched their businesses and to hear why they decided to break into the health sector…

Vision Lab Games: Changing the way we conduct eye tests on children

Welsh eye specialists Dr Stephanie Campbell and Dr Luke Anderson have developed a new iPad game which could revolutionise how we conduct eye tests on children.

The duo have launched Vision Game Labs, with support from CEMET (Centre of Excellence in Mobile and Emerging Technologies), based at the University of South Wales (USW).

The company is developing technology which will allow parents to monitor their children’s vision from home, helping to avoid what can be long visits to hospital.  

Cardiff University graduate Stephanie, who has a PhD in vision science and is an NHS optometrist, and Luke, a consultant eye surgeon at Cwm Taf University Health Board, came up with the idea for the app when analysing children’s sight.

Through testing children’s vision, she realised the difficulties in diagnosing children because of their short attention span, and watching how long that children could play on computer games, she knew there must’ve been a better way to go about conducting eye tests.

“Through testing children’s vision, I realised just how difficult it was to reach a diagnosis because of their short attention span,” Stephanie said.

“Watching how long that children could play on computer games, I turned to technology to help.” 

After the game is completed, parents will be able to track their child’s vision to provide an early alert to a decline.

The results will also be made available to a specialist to decide whether a further hospital appointment is needed. This can be done remotely if necessary. 

Stephanie is also interested in how this app could be used as a vision science research platform, to transform the collection of data from tens of subjects in the lab, to thousands of subjects being tested in their own homes.

“It’s a particularly exciting development for us as eye specialists, because we can also use the app to collect vital information that can further improve the results – meaning that we won’t just have data from maybe 20 or 30 people, but up to thousands of subjects who are tested in their own homes,” she added.

As for Luke, the development of the app is just the latest piece of research he has carried out having previously worked with USW’s Centre of Excellence in Mobile Applications and Services (CEMAS) to design an app to teach trainee eye professionals how to identify sight-threatening diseases.  

“The serious game Space Vision has the capability to revolutionise how vision is measured,” Luke added.

“It should also be able to contribute huge efficiencies to the health service by allowing patients to be monitored at home; and to pick up eye problems earlier in life, enabling a healthier population of young children in Wales.” 

MindMate: Helping those suffering from dementia

MindMate is a free app designed and developed in Glasgow helping people affected by dementia live more independent lives.

The award-winning app, which was launched last September, already has more than 150,000 monthly active users and is ranked in 17 countries as the number one health app in Apple’s store.

The company was founded by its German-born chief executive Susanne Mitschke, and her co-founders Rogelio Arellano, 29, from Mexico and Patrick Renner, 27, also from Germany – all graduates from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde.

While Renner, the company’s chief operations officer, had experience of working in the care system in Germany and Mitschke developed expertise in both digital health and Alzheimer’s, Arellano’s association with the disease is particularly close to home – his grandfather had the condition and he helped care for him for seven years, witnessing first-hand the everyday struggles not just of his grandfather but his family.

“We had a whiteboard on the wall with family pictures on it to help my grandfather remember who everyone was,” explains MindMate’s chief technical officer. “He would sometimes forget who I was, or confuse me with my father. It was very difficult for all of us. He would see that board every time he went into the kitchen and there would be sticky notes reminding him to take pills or eat breakfast – that type of thing.

“So, we thought if we could put all these prompts into an app and make it interactive with games, reminders – things like that – it could be such a valuable tool in stimulating people’s minds and helping them stay active. We didn’t have anything like that to help my grandfather.”

The app now has several features, including interactive games to stimulate a user’s cognitive abilities, as well as chat and video functions to help family and carers keep in touch with dementia sufferers. “People suffering from dementia can be very lonely and confused,” says Mitschke, “and this leads to isolation.

“We describe MindMate as a guardian angel, a friend who is always there to help you by giving you everything you need at your fingertips. Other apps provide brain games or advice on nutrition and exercise but if you are struggling with memory loss and are using several apps for different things and maybe Spotify for music then it can be overwhelming.

“With MindMate, you don’t have to use different apps for music, games, photographs and so on because you can access it all on our interface. It’s an empowering tool because it helps people manage their lives without having to rely on family, friends or carers all the time – it increases their quality of life and that of the people around them.”

OurPath: Technology tackling type 2 diabetes

London digital healthcare start-up OurPath is helping tackle type 2 diabetes with its innovative online platform.

The company was launched by former Cambridge University scientist Mike Gibbs and Oxford University engineer Chris Edson after they spotted a gap in the market for a solution which combines technology with live support and educational content.

One in three people in the UK have pre-diabetes and it is estimated that 70% of these will develop type 2 diabetes if they don’t change their lifestyle. Treating the condition costs the NHS over £9bn each year.

With this in mind, Gibbs, 27, and Edson, 29, who first met at Monitor Deloitte whilst advising the NHS, decided to develop a solution which would help tackle the problem.

Working at the NHS they saw first-hand the huge impact type 2 diabetes has on vast swathes of the population and its horrific consequences.

They knew, too, the billions of pounds the NHS spends every year treating type 2 diabetes — and how much taxpayers’ money could be saved if fewer people got the condition in the first place through effective prevention.  

Chris told BQ: “We started off three years ago when I was working at NHS England. It became really apparent that type 2 diabetes, which wasn’t something I knew a lot about, was devastating the NHS.

“We quickly realised that if you could eradicate type 2 diabetes, which is totally lifestyle based and avoidable, you could basically save the NHS. You would save all of the cuts that are being made.

“I looked at America and realised that the States were using technology to improve the lives of people with diabetes and also helping people avoid getting type 2 diabetes and I thought, why don’t we have this in the NHS?”

So how does the technology work? Chris explains: “We send customers one of our health boxes out which has wireless weighing scales and an activity tracker. We then assign them a mentor who they’re accountable to.

“They help set goals, give correct nutritional guidance and we then put them in a group with people similar to them. The best way I can describe it is, it’s like being in a WhatsApp group with 10 other people with similar goals to you.

“Once this process is complete, they then take our six-week programme which is designed to change lifestyle behaviours. It helps change eating habits, activity and lifestyle, how you deal with stress and even your sleeping habits.

“If you do all of those things correctly and make the changes you have to make, they have a huge impact on diabetes and your risk of developing diabetes.”

It has now been three years since Chris and Mike quit their day jobs and they couldn’t be happier with how the company has grown.

Since the programme launched in June 2016, hundreds of people looking to improve their lifestyle have gone through the programme, resulting in an average weight loss of 5.3kg and a 50% reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes.

Breaking Free Group: Fighting addiction

Birmingham-based digital healthcare provider Breaking Free Group was founded by Dr Jon Ward, who had previously established an educational psychology business (CPA).

By 2009-2010, he saw the potential to create a new form of consultancy, which would use technology as a route to care, so he set up Breaking Free.

His aim was to address the underlying psychological and lifestyle influences which drive addictive behaviour, by developing a powerful and flexible digital health platform.

Previously, if someone wanted to tackle their addictions, they had three options: try by themselves, check in to a private clinic, which was very expensive, or join one of various organisations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. However, but those models haven’t really changed in years.

Jon’s innovation was not simply to see how programmes for alcohol and drug dependency could be delivered remotely by digital technology, but to realise that interventions had to be evidence-based.

Clive Bawden, Breaking Free Group commercial director, told BQ: “We’re working with Turning Point, for example, and also with CRI, which is a £100m organisation tackling severe cases of alcohol and drug abuse.

“In the past, many of these people would be turned away by charities or casework teams because of the severity of their condition and their behavioural issues.

“Providing a remote online service works better for individuals who are attempting self-help, and we have also developed Staying Free, a toolkit designed to prevent relapses, available as an app on Android or IOS platforms.”

He added: “The Ministry of Justice also approached us because it wanted to address the issue of drug addiction within prisons. We were asked if we could use our methodology to create new pathways of care, and so we did a two-year study at 10 prisons, which was the world’s first online health monitoring initiative for offenders.

“NHS England then commissioned the programme through its ‘Gateways’ project, which looks to provide better continuity of care between prisons and communities, and is a major element of the Government’s efforts to reduce reoffending rates.

“Our staff were installed in each prison, working alongside the educational interventions to monitor the success of our programmes. All the feedback has been positive, and we’d certainly hope to be commissioned for further studies.

“Now we’re seeing significant interest in our work throughout the UK and overseas. Our products are in a specialised market niche, as we grow we may ultimately enter different markets, but there’s a long way we can go with our existing products.”