Healthcare Startup Ready for Impact
Ambulance officer Sean O’Connor saw elderly people injure their hips in falls countless times in his 18-year career.
“When I got to Tauranga it was almost exponential. We’d be going to falls on a regular basis and finding people with broken hips. The lightbulb moment was when I started a shift in Mt Maunganui one morning and saw a lady who had been in the hall all night with her pendant alarm hanging on the door handle. She was in a lot of pain and was by herself. I thought, ‘I’ve got to have a go and do something myself’.”
Hip protectors weren’t new; O’Connor says there are about a dozen significant providers of them globally.
And the idea behind them — put a shield into underwear to stop a person’s hip breaking if they fall — seemed a simple enough proposition. But existing products had a bad name among the elderly Kiwis O’Connor spoke to.
“We had to find out what a 65, 75, or 85-year-old would wear. Part of providing a hip protection system that’s compliant is it has to be comfortable, but if it doesn’t look good, someone will just say they’re not going to buy it.”
Four years ago O’Connor set out to redefine hip protection. Comfort and a decent look were part of that, but the protectors also had to be measurably more robust, and cater for people of all shapes and sizes.
He’s now got a product range, called HipFit, based on patented innovation (the shape of his shields and the underwear positioning system are protected), which also has a design award to its name.
And thanks to exhaustive testing and research that helped set an international standard, O’Connor also has a growing market.
True to Kiwi Innovation 101, O’Connor began cooking up a prototype hip protector in his garage, heating and moulding foam and plaster. He and business partner Terry Vickers formed a company, Delloch, and took the prototype to a supplier of elderly care products in Australia. They were told their pitch needed polish.
Enter fellow Bay of Plenty company Locus Research. Far from a spruce up, Locus took O’Connor’s concept all the way back to the drawing board.
There was no doubt Delloch had a market, thanks to the ‘grey tsunami’ set to wash over New Zealand and other countries. Our Treasury estimates the proportion of the Kiwi population aged over 65 will double by 2051, which will account for a 63% share of the health spend.
According to Locus Research’s numbers, 3000 New Zealanders break their hip as a result of a fall each year and the average cost of surgery and care afterwards is $26,000.O’Connor’s first challenge was where to target the product. Locus Research canvassed potential users about what they’d wear, but discovered the buyer wasn’t going to be the wearer.
“We did a lot of work identifying the key people in institutional care who have the purchasing power,” says Locus Research programme director Jono Jones.
“The elderly person wears it, but it’s probably their children who buy it. The person who then refers the children to it is either the physiotherapist, the occupational therapist or the care home manager. It’s an interesting value chain because you’re designing the product for one person, but there are all those other requirements.”
Delloch also needed hard numbers to show its product was up to the job. In 2011 it secured $34,000 in government funding to build a test rig that met specifications set by the UK-based International Hip Protector Research Group (IHPRG). The rig drops 28kg of weights from half a metre onto hip protection shields covering a metal femur and a model of thigh soft tissue. Sensors under the ‘bone’ and beneath the weights measure the amount of force the protector can divert on impact.
In the two years of testing before the product hit the market, the weights fell 590 times. Delloch’s marketing material says it has achieved 41% force reduction for its HipFit Active soft shell protector and 55% for the HipFit Plus hard shell protector.
In a market where there’s no agreed product testing standard, Locus Research has helped set the bar. Jones says it improved on IHPRG’s vague specification for the material that covered the steel femur by employing an intern from Auckland’s Biomedical Institute to assess mechanical characteristics of muscle, skin, and fat layers and use silicon instead of foam to more closely mimic the characteristics of soft tissue.
The next challenge? One size was never going to fit all.
The products had to be tailored for different body shapes and sizes and a ball and socket angle that can vary by as much as three inches. Delloch’s response to this challenge — domes and a pocket that allows the shield to be positioned correctly for the user — became a patented point of difference. The shape of the protective shield has also been protected. According to O’Connor, the curvature of the company’s shields is designed to cater for the body shapes of 90% of the population.
O’Connor also needed help cutting red tape in the healthcare sector. “Getting to see the right people has been a real educational curve for me. Trying to get into some of the hospitals has been interesting, yet when you speak with a distributor out of Auckland, three or four weeks later they say they’ve spoken to 16 of the 19 DHBs [district health boards].”
Last year the HipFit won a bronze award at the Best Design Awards. The award sits alongside Locus Research’s test data as a weapon in Delloch’s battle to win offshore business. The company has a distributor in Melbourne and has the Florida market in its sights.
Delloch has been selling online for a few months and rest homes in Auckland, Waikato, and Tauranga have adopted the product.
O’Connor hasn’t given up his day job, but with a monitored hip protector being developed (one that would send an alert to a cellphone as well as protect from injury) — and monitored head and limb protection products as possible future developments — he wonders if the day will come.
“We’re looking to be a company that deals with protecting people from injuries that result from falls, and healthcare products for the elderly. At the moment I can do both, but the days I get off from the ambulance service are well and truly full.”
Original article by Amanda Sachtleben for Unlimited Magazine.