Healthtech startup Coviu has secured $1.18 million in government grant funding to commercialise its remote physiotherapy technology, and free up hospital beds.
The Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P) grant has been issued to Coviu along with CSIRO’s Data 61, health clinic HFRC and the School of Sports Science, Exercise and Health at the University of Western Australia.
The $1.18 million will be used to develop and commercialise Coviu’s PhysioROM ‘telehealth’ solution, which conducts range-of-motion analysis via video calls.
Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, and monitoring patients’ progress, the technology allows for remote physiotherapy sessions.
An alternative to continued hospital care, it means patients — particularly those from rural and remote communities — can return home sooner after joint surgery.
Coviu founder and chief Silvia Pfeiffer tells StartupSmart because Australia has so many communities living so far from their closest hospital, doctors are often wary of sending a patient home too early, concerned they may not continue with their rehabilitation exercises.
“If we could do it in a way that gives clinicians confidence they are doing it right, then we can send people home, we can open up a whole bunch of beds … and we can reduce the delays on waiting times,” Pfeiffer says.
Founded in 2015, Coviu grew out of CSIRO’s Data 61 program. In April last year, the startup secured $1 million in funding from Main Sequence Ventures, and in November it took home the top prize at Brisbane’s HealthHack, among other titles.
This grant will fund research into recovery from total-knee-replacement surgery, with CSIRO’s AI experts working on improving the accuracy and automation of the algorithm, the health clinic providing patient case studies, and the university publishing the research.
While the base development of the technology is done, there are improvements to be made, Pfeiffer says.
To improve it, the group will be building up a data set of recordings of human movement.
“We need to really be sure that we’re keeping that data safe and secure,” she says.
“There is ethic approval involved — it’s a proper clinical study, and there will be regulatory work to do at the end before we put it into the hands of clinicians,” she adds.
However, once it’s commercialisable, Pfeiffer has plans to take the technology global.
“We’ve spoken to a couple of physiotherapists in America and physiotherapy clinics. They got really excited about this,” she says.
There’s an opportunity arising in telehealth, she says. While there are remote mental-health solutions, physical healthcare brings additional complexities.
“There’s not much happening in that space from a commercialisation point of view,” Pfeiffer says.
“We think we have a huge opportunity in the US to enter that market, and we’re preparing with all the reg aspects necessary.”
Strength in numbers
The CRCP grant requires collaboration between a research organisation and a commercialisation partner. For Pfeiffer, this is “the perfect team” for this kind of funding.
“In AI there is a lot of research necessary. In healthcare, there is a lot of clinical validation and regulatory work. As a small startup, you’re better off doing that together with the experts,” she says.
It’s a bigger project that Coviu could have taken on alone, she adds. She estimates the total expenditure to be about $3 million.
“For a small startup to get that kind of funding and do all that work is actually pretty difficult.”
Equally, the collaboration is mutually beneficial. Coviu gets improved research capabilities, CSIRO can continue to improve on its research, the university can publish papers and HFRC gets a cutting-edge solution for its patients.
“It’s a win-win situation for all of us,” Pfeiffer says.
“We all put in some of our efforts, we get supported by the government for working together, and we all get some advantages out of it.”
Find a challenge
When it comes to securing such partnerships — and such grants — Pfeiffer’s main piece of advice is to make sure you’re solving a problem that needs solving.
“Find a challenge that needs an AI approach or research into new technology, then find an organisation that has that capacity to solve that problem with you, and is prepared to commercialise it with you.”
CSIRO typically backs research projects that can be commercialised, and “pretty much every university in Australia is looking into these kinds of solutions”, Pfeiffer says.
There is also a lot of support available in the Australian startup space as a whole, she adds.
Pfeiffer tried to launch her first startup in 2006.
“There was no environment and no support then,” she says.
Now, however, “the government is trying really hard, in the commercial sector we’ve got accelerators, we’ve got a large set of mentors, and a large community in the startup space,” she adds.
“It’s great to see the energy we have in the startup space now.”