Through good works, to global growth

By Nick Smith

Wellington company's rehabilitation technology wins financial backing from US investor.

Im-Able's Geoff Todd with a device that helps stroke patients regain muscle control. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Im-Able's Geoff Todd with a device that helps stroke patients regain muscle control. Photo / Mark Mitchell

An innovative Wellington business believes that by doing good, it can do very well indeed.

Im-Able specialises in rehabilitating stroke patients and uses an unusual hybrid of public- and private-sector expertise and intellectual property.

It has created technology that is clinically proven to rehabilitate people who have suffered stroke, brain injury or neurological disorder.

Yet when Im-Able co-founder Geoff Todd presented the company's credentials to investors by emphasising the private sector's ability to address social problems, "they thought I wasn't really focused on making a profit - and we are".

When Todd's anecdote elicits laughter, he says: "It wasn't funny; it was irritating. It seems to me that if you have a good purpose - and we have a bloody good purpose - and we do that well, then we'll make a profit and a good return for the investors."

No matter; "a big chunk of money" from a private United States investor and a local children's charitable fund is soon arriving and will secure the company's immediate expansion plans.

"Allied Medical is our distributor in New Zealand, we've got a company in Australia, [co-founder Sunil Vather] is in South Africa and we're working out arrangements in the UK, France and Germany."

The funding will dilute the stakes held by the founders, a mixture of doctors, neurologists, academics and engineers. "But that's an important part of growing and becoming an international company, not just a New Zealand one," Todd says.

Both Todd and Vather worked for Crown research institute Industrial Research (IRL) before moving to the private sector, and it was the work of IRL - in combination with Burwood Hospital and Canterbury and Otago universities - which yielded the innovative system for rehabilitating stroke patients.

"One of the ironies here is that when we were at IRL we actually helped get the money to start that research programme, which we've now licensed," Todd says.

Creating world-leading export companies is what well-funded public research should and can do, he argues. His company has also received funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Im-Able's system addresses the loss of motor function that can follow a stroke, brain injury or neurological disorder. "The problem isn't a muscle problem; it's a brain problem," he says. "They've lost some of their neural networks and you have to re-engage those networks.

"It's pretty new science but it's fairly well demonstrated now that if you encourage the brain to have a lot of movement between left and right hemispheres at the same time as a person is concentrating on a task - so you've got movement and thinking - you start to rebuild the network."

The patient uses a device that allows them to use their good arm to move their bad arm, while they negotiate a series of tasks set by a computer program.

Stroke patients cannot handle a lot of information at once, so the trick was to create a simple enough program that still stimulated the neural network.

"Everything we thought was easy wasn't; it was still too hard," says Todd, whose father was invalided after a series of strokes. One task is to simply move a cursor over a target and another is to catch a butterfly and put it on a flower.

Users are scored for their efforts so they can measure their improvement, a novelty that introduces a competitive element and encourages use of the device.

Prototypes were developed and tested clinically at the University of Otago - "and it works". Stroke victims recover use of their limbs following the five-step Im-Able programme.

Todd contends it has other benefits beyond the purely physical, including improved mental health and ability to concentrate, but "the only benefit we can claim, because it's clinically proven, is that it improves your arm movement".

Stroke is the No1 global cause of physical disability. More than 8000 Kiwis are struck down each year; the number is more than 2 million in the US, France, Germany and Britain.

"If we only secure a chunk of the stroke market and we move into the traumatic brain-injury market and other related neurological ones, we could easily be in a really short time a $50 million company or more and on the global stage," Todd says.

"Our American investor thinks we can be much bigger than that; it's just that us Kiwis aren't good at asserting we can be huge on day one.

"It's fun, it's exciting and there's nothing more motivating than watching a smile on the face of a person who's had a stroke, who couldn't move their arm, and suddenly seeing it moving again.

"And all the investors who've put in time and money want to see those smiles but also make a return."

- NZ Herald

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