The University of East Anglia turned to Design Council to help them develop and test the commercial viability of a device that could help adults who have had a stroke regain their ability to walk. 

Background

In the UK, strokes are a major health problem. Every year, around 152,000 people in the UK have a stroke, a quarter of these cases proving to be fatal. Of those who do survive, many are left with long-term problems resulting from the injury to the brain.

Some people need to have a long period of rehabilitation before they can recover their former independence, while many will never fully recover and will need support adjusting to living with the effects of their stroke. A major challenge to a patient’s recovery lies in the fact that following a stroke, patients often lack the muscle strength needed to walk and support themselves. 

To tackle this, researchers from the Acquired Brain Injury Rehabilitation Alliance (ABIRA) at the University of East Anglia were testing an idea for a device that could help restore walking ability to adults who have had a stroke. The concept emerged from the PhD research conducted by Dr Nicola Hancock, one of the university’s Associate Directors of Enterprise in the School of Health Sciences and a physiotherapy lecturer.

We had ideas and research data pointing at ways to improve the prototype, but we lacked funding and the experience to realise the idea as a product.

Dr Nicola Hancock, Associate Director of Enterprise in the School of Health Sciences, University of East Anglia

 Dr Hancock had worked with the university’s Research and Enterprise Services (REN) team to create an initial prototype – an upright pedalling device known as UPED1 – which could be used by people who, despite substantial muscle weakness after a stroke, need to get walking. 

In order to progress the concept of UPED1, the team at ABIRA wanted to assess, develop and test its commercial viability. Consequently, the next objective was to develop the ideas for advanced prototypes suitable for patient use, and at the same time, assess the potential market viability of such a product. To achieve this, the team signed up to a Design Council coaching programme which specialises in commercialising research.

“We had ideas and research data from the work we’d done so far, pointing at ways to improve the prototype, but we lacked funding and the knowledge and experience to realise the idea as a product", said Dr Hancock. “We needed to understand current and modern design processes”.

What we did

Design Associate Ian Ferris introduced Dr Hancock’s team to a design-led approach to device development and commercialisation. He reviewed the project and then worked with the team to build a development roadmap to test their business case and identify possible users.

“We talked about how design can work at different stages of the commercialisation process, emphasising the need to externally validate ideas by having close customer and end-user focus throughout,” explained Ian. 

“We also stressed the benefits of partnering with product designers to consider manufacturing implications and get the physical design right. Discussion also focused on vision: who would be the customer? Hospitals? Home users? Or both?” 

They needed to translate the idea into something that would engage potential partners and clearly demonstrate that the idea was commercially viable.

David Robinson, director, LA Design

This process enabled the team to identify primary user groups – people with stroke, physiotherapists, NHS service leads and commissioners – and also potential for a modified product that could be used in a domestic setting.

“We wanted to continue our scientific research into learning to walk after a stroke and develop a viable product, but at first we thought this was an either/or. With Ian’s help, we came to see how we could do both,” said Dr Hancock.

Supported by Design Council’s programme, the team secured initial funding from the university’s Proof of Concept Fund to capture on paper the idea and their vision for it. This would be essential if they were to secure further investment for late stage development.

An external design agency, LA Design, was employed to create a design concept to bring the idea to life. Rather than simply address the mechanical aspects of how the product might work, they began with the end user. They considered who might use the product, and how and when they might use it. Of course, they also addressed the aesthetic considerations.

“It was clear from the outset that if this technology could be translated into a marketable product, it had clear potential,” said LA Design Director David Robinson. “They needed to translate the idea into something that would engage potential partners and clearly demonstrate that the idea was commercially viable.”

A single concept that best demonstrated all of the key product features was agreed and a CAD-rendered model of this was then produced, along with print material detailing the basic technology on one side and product concept potential on the other.

Additional funding also came when the project won the University of East Anglia’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences Research Enterprise Award.

“This is where visualisations come into their own – it’s a cliché, but a picture really does paint a thousand words, and a 3D photo-realistic image is even better at engaging an audience and provoking effective response and detailed feedback,” Robinson said. “Visualisation shifts the emphasis onto end-user benefits, and that’s an important step along the road to turning innovative technology into commercially viable products.”

Results

Once work on the visualisations of the design concept was completed in May 2015, Dr Hancock and her team successfully applied for – and recently secured – a further tranche of funding from the Norwich Research Park Translational Fund worth £40,000.

Additional funding also came when the project won the University of East Anglia’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences Research Enterprise Award.   

As a result of both cash injections, the team now has the funding needed for the next stage of development in collaboration with LA Design, to further develop and produce a new prototype due to be delivered in July 2016.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the support we’ve received from Design Council and what it has helped us to achieve,” said Dr Hancock. “In just over a year we moved considerably forward with our plan to take this idea to market. The next step is to test it in the real world at which point we hope we will be able to construct a stronger argument for commercial investment.”

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