Taking robotics research to the next level a challenge
By A. Asohan June 10, 2014
- Too much university R&D focused on publication rather than commercialisation
- Startup estimates it would need RM500,000 to kick off and sustain the business
ONE in six people in the world will suffer a stroke in their lifetime – in Malaysia, about 52,000 people, and not just the elderly, suffer a stroke every year.
Because of the large number of patients and a lack of therapists, stroke patients usually don’t have the chance to get enough rehabilitation for a proper recovery, an area Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) spinoff company TechCare Innovation Sdn Bhd hopes to address.
The company has developed a series of robotics systems it calls Compact Rehabilitation Robot (CR2), and one version, CR2-Haptic, is aimed at those who have suffered strokes, traumatic brain injuries or other neurological disorders resulting in hand and arm impairment.
As part of the official launch of the Malaysian Global Innovation Centre (MaGIC) in late April, TechCare Innovation has launched a pledge drive on Malaysian crowdfunding platform pitchIN, with the first RM5,000 allowing it to donate the software portion the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (Nasam).
The company is however aiming to get RM35,000 that would allow it to fully develop CR2-Haptic and donate it to Nasam, and also help it on its way to commercialising the technology and bringing it to market. [RM1 = US$0.31]
The TechCare Innovation team comprises at its core these three gentlemen:
Dr Yeong Che Fai: Senior lecturer at UTM, got his PhD from Imperial College in the United Kingdom and is currently leading several research and commercial projects worth a total of more than RM 1 million. He is also an entrepreneur and has founded several companies. He actively encourages his students to become entrepreneurs. He is lead researcher and marketing strategist at TechCare Innovation.
Khor Kang Xiang: A mechatronics graduate and Vice Chancellor Award Winner at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). Over the past four years, he has won about 30 innovation awards at both the national and international levels. He is the core mechanical and electronics designer in the team and is currently continuing his Master’s research in bioengineering at UTM.
Patrick Chin: A programmer with six years’ experience in software, games and embedded systems. His background in mechatronics engineering helps him create and integrate hardware with therapy software and games into a complete system. He is the core software developer in the team.
In our previous article, the company told Digital News Asia (DNA) how its founders came up with the idea. Here, they speak about the technical and commercialisation challenges they face as they seek to build a business.
Dr Yeong and Khor answered more questions in an email interview with DNA. Here are excerpts:
DNA: You’ve been working on this for the last three years. What factors, if any, prompted you to take this to the next level?
Dr Yeong: Actually, it’s not just about this project, but in general, all R&D (research and development) projects in Malaysia. Malaysia spends close to RM650million on R&D every year, but not many of these projects are commercialised. One of the main reasons is our Malaysian mindset.
I was in the United Kingdom for quite some time, and also visited Silicon Valley in the United States, and many other countries. People in these places have so much difficulty getting funds to start their entrepreneurship journeys. I met some who had very good ideas but who had so much difficulty getting even US$10,000 to start their projects.
But in Malaysia, there are so many opportunities and funds ready for research. Some researchers easily get funded for RM500,000 and some even get close to RM2 million.
Unfortunately, most of these projects focus on publication, because all universities are fighting for world rankings, and publishing research is one of the main criteria for this. In my opinion, this money can be better spent and bring greater benefit [in other ways].
In the real world of business, it is my understanding that if people invest in your company, they are expecting returns of 10 to 20 times within five years. Thus, if Malaysia spent RM650 million on research, and if we really made the effort to take this R&D into the commercialisation stage, RM650 million would lead to RM6.5 trillion in revenue to the nation.
I have had experience with rehab robots, and had some funds for research, and thus was looking for partners to work with me to venture into this. Fortunately, I met [Khor] Kang Xiang and Patrick [Chin] who have the same passion.
More importantly, they are really good at what they do, which is very important for our company.
DNA: What has been the greatest challenge – technical or otherwise – in the last three years? What did you do, or are doing, to address this challenge?
Dr Yeong: There are a lot of challenges. One of them is that we don't have experience in developing an end product. Thus, we are not sure of the right methodology and process – this is inclusive of technical, R&D, business, and other areas. So, we spend a lot of time figuring and learning the right method to solve some of the issues.
Khor (pic): We faced a lot of challenges in understanding and selecting the requirements to fit the needs of physicians. As we are all from engineering backgrounds, we needed to build, test and ask the opinions of therapists by visiting rehabilitation centres and hospitals.
Fortunately, we now have our partner the National Stroke Association Malaysia (Nasam) and other potential collaborators from the medical field who are interested to work together in this project, so development can be even faster.
DNA: Your basic funding goal was RM5,000, which you have already received. The ultimate goal is RM35,000, with which you would be to develop a new robot set, CR2-Haptic, and give it to Nasam. What will you do if you fail to achieve the second pledge mark?
Dr Yeong: If we don't get the funds we need, we will put the money to good use to continue developing and fine-tuning the robot. We will still finish the product and loan it to the rehab centre.
The reason we can't give away is that if we don't get the RM35,000, we would need to use our other funds to build the robot.
Khor: We have been working with Nasam for the past few years, and we really hope the association can get the robot. However, we understand that it has limited funds and may not be able to afford the device, but we hope the crowdfunding drive gives us enough money so we can develop it further for the benefit of Nasam patients in the future.
DNA: After this pitchIN drive, what would your next step be? How much funds would you need to fully commercialise the solution and go to market?
Khor: We estimate we would require about RM500,000 to help the business take off and sustain it for the first few years before it would be able to stand on its own. The funds would mainly be used for the company’s operational costs: The robot production cost, patents, product certification, and salaries.
DNA: Are you guys still working out of UTM right now, or is TechCare Innovation based elsewhere?
Dr Yeong and Khor: We are based at UTM. We have had great support from UTM and other institutes to push this product to market – these including Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd (an agency of Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance), CREST (Collaborative Research in Engineering, Science and Technology), Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM), and some government and private hospitals.
DNA: I noticed that some of the pledges on pitchIN have come from corporate entities – are you going to hold partnership discussions with any of them?
Khor: Yes, we have had discussions with some of these companies on potential collaboration or partnerships in the future.
DNA: Serdang Hospital executives have visited your lab and tried out the solution. Have they expressed an interest in purchasing it? You say you have visited visited rehabilitation centres and hospitals around UK and Malaysia. Have any of them expressed such an interest as well?
Dr Yeong: Yes, they have expressed great interest in using the device. This includes Serdang Hospital and Hospital Sultanah Aminah, which will consider buying after the product has undergone certification and clinical trials.
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