The ability to walk easily contributes to quality of life and life expectancy. However, throughout their lifetime, everyone will experience difficulty moving due to illness, injury or aging. Being less active due to a limited ability to walk could contribute to cardiovascular disease and premature death. The senior population is particularly affected by limited mobility, as elderly people tend to develop a poor gait which results in difficulty walking.
Over 4.2 million Canadians are over the age of 70, and more than 35% of this population is at high risk of suffering a fall. Another one third will fall annually, leading to 100,000 injuries per year. The resulting economic impact is staggering, representing $5.6 billion annually in fall-related injuries in Canada, alone.
To help patients walk better, one effective strategy used by physical therapists is to encourage them to put their heel down first when taking a step―but once left on their own, it’s difficult for patients to maintain this habit without help.
This is one of the challenges that Nancy Mayo is trying to address through her company PhysioBiometrics, created to develop accessible innovations for patients with movement and posture vulnerabilities and for the clinicians who treat them. Mayo is a Professor at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy in McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Using the power of the brain to improve gait
Mayo and her team at PhysioBiometrics created Walk Best, an innovative line of products to help patients move “better, faster, longer and stronger.” The central product of the suite is the Heel2Toe device, the first therapeutic wearable of its kind. This small sensor clips onto the outside of a shoe and is able to detect when the user walks with a proper gait and beeps in response to a correct step pattern.
The Heel2toe device is supported by supplemental features such as a smartphone app, a workbook and instructional videos, as well as a chair that is installed in public spaces, such as parks, to get people to exercise and help them walk better.
The device’s positive auditory feedback is a key part of how the system trains users to walk with proper form. As the brain is sensitive to auditory signals, the device’s beeps stimulate the dopamine system, which is very sensitive to reward and feedback. This positive feedback encourages the brain to follow an ideal walking pattern, and repeated use of the device helps to rewire the patient’s brain through the process of neuroplasticity.
Clinical trials have shown that using the Heel2Toe sensor offers promising results, with the device able to detect good steps with 95% accuracy. While other similar devices are only able to provide information about the number of steps taken or how fast the wearer is moving, the Heel2Toe sensor is also able to provide feedback on how many steps were taken correctly in addition to reporting on other aspects of quality and quantity.
The path to commercialization through HBHL and NeuroSphere
Since 2019, HBHL and NeuroSphere’s funding opportunities have played a major role in the maturation and commercialization process of the Walk Best product line and the Heel2Toe device.
“HBHL was very helpful―it’s usually not as easy to get funding for a medical device as it is for drug or molecule discovery. But HBHL allowed my team to apply for their funding programs through NeuroSphere, which was what allowed us to push the development of our product further,” said Mayo.
Through the first round of the Ignite Grant program in 2020, Mayo received $50,000 to develop her product. This funding helped to create an interface, for both patients and clinicians, that was used for the early version of the Heel2Toe device. It also allowed the company to produce 20 devices for testing by colleagues and patients and to receive feedback on how to improve the product.
Through HBHL’s Innovative Ideas Grant program, Mayo’s project was allocated $200,000 to run a pilot trial of the Heel2Toe device with patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. The project team enrolled 23 people and demonstrated success for every person training with the Heel2Toe device. The data collected through this process was used to register the product with Health Canada as an approved Class 1 medical device with an establishment licence.
In 2021, funding through the second round of the Ignite Grant helped Mayo develop GoHand, a new product based on the Heel2Toe technologies that’s designed to help rehabilitate people who have had a stroke and have decreased hand function.
PhysioBiometrics received over $300,000 from MEDTECH and Parkinson Québec though HBHL’s Neuro Partnerships Program. This funding helped make the Heel2Toe available to 100 people with Parkinson’s and supported studies on how best to serve this population with the Heel2Toe device and the Walk Best product line.
The keys to success and advice to entrepreneurs
Navigating the commercialization process can be challenging for many researchers who want to get their innovation from the lab to the market. Based on over 30 years of clinical and academic experience, Mayo offered this advice for future entrepreneurs:
Believe that what you’re doing is “the right thing to do.” You will be the most engaged and successful when the problem your venture solves has meaning to you. “With Heel2Toe, we knew that we had to get the product out there, that people needed this device,” said Mayo.
Seek a champion for your ideas; this is especially important for junior innovators. Somebody that is committed to and believes in your product is very motivating.
Bring together a team of people who share the same passion, who you trust and enjoy working with; this is essential to ensuring the success of your project.
Communicate your passion for your idea through your pitch and show that you know your business. Mayo and her team are fundamentally interested in the research and the data, and were successful because “working on this project was an extension of their academic and clinical lives.”