An aging population combined with an increased focus on wellness is creating more need for physical therapy. However, even those who would benefit from it often struggle to adhere to a consistent appointment schedule due to time limitations and the travel necessary to meet with a physical therapist in-person. Patients also become less likely to adhere to the regimen once they are tasked with doing the exercises on their own at home.
A new model for physical therapy
This exact scenario was the genesis for Immergo Labs, created by a team from University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), who aims to solve this challenge by developing an immersive telehealth platform for physical therapists. The startup’s co-founders had all gone through physical therapy, yet had stopped doing the exercises once in-person visits ceased, resulting in a reoccurrence of the pain that started the cycle over.
Immergo Labs’ platform offers a hybrid model of care that starts with hands-on sessions in the clinic, supplemented with remote care. As patients improve, an increasing number of sessions can then be done remotely.
While this design promotes patient access, it also stabilizes the therapist’s revenue. That’s because as many as 30% of a therapist’s sessions end up being no-shows. Therapists frequently counter this plight by overbooking, which can cause frustration when the patients actually do show up.
While the convenience of telehealth appointments increases the likelihood of patient participation, just using a remote platform like Zoom doesn’t address many of the unique requirements providers have for giving competent care.
“The challenge with current telehealth options is that they are limited in their ability to set the cameras at the right angles to get accurate metrics and successfully evaluate patients,” explained Michael Powell, Immergo Labs’ co-founder and CEO. That led to their creation of a technology based on the 3D environment of virtual reality (VR). “You can move around each other, demonstrate exercises and collect metrics for range of motion, strength and balance, which are the metrics physical therapists most seek in a teleplatform,” he said.
The software platform uses novel IP involving full body avatars to deliver detailed metrics that would be impossible to gather otherwise, allowing the practitioner to see if the patient is doing the exercises correctly and log progress over time.
“The other component is that our exercises can be ‘gamified,’ so patients enjoy doing their exercises with incentives,” said Ash Robbins, artificial intelligence lead, co-founder and CTO.
The startup was awarded a Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, which helped them develop the platform. In addition to the SBIR grant, the team also launched a crowdfunding campaign via StartEngine with the goal of raising a little over $1 million. Anyone can invest as little as $200 at www.startengine.com/immergolabs. Immergo’s long term goal is equitable care and, to align company mission with fundraising, they wanted to open the investment opportunity to all.
The opportunity is great: Outpatient physical and occupational therapy is a $49 billion market, and Immergo Labs is focused on concierge or cash-based PT as a starting point, Later, they plan to expand into markets outside of the U.S., including parts of Europe, Canada and Mexico.
Currently they are partnered with Houston Veteran Affairs, which will help connect them to user studies with 100 physical therapists and 800 patients that will fall under an eventual SBIR Phase II award. They are also partnered with the Stanford Healthcare outpatient physical therapy department.
An accomplished team
The team met working in the same lab at UCSC and bring complementary skills to the company. Michael has a background in physics and kinesiology, earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming, then a master’s in exercise science with a focus on biomechanics from the University of Montana, and a doctorate degree in computer engineering from UCSC. While there he worked on research related to VR-based physical therapy games and met Ash, who received his bachelor’s in robotics engineering and is pursuing a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering. Aviv Elor, immersive media lead, co-founder and chief science officer at Immergo Labs, received his bachelor’s degree in robotics engineering and doctorate in computational media from UCSC.
So far the team has already published more than 15 studies, which led to the SBIR grant.
Joining Fogarty Innovation
The team felt they needed more expertise in the medtech space with advisors who understand the value of telehealth and know how it can benefit patients. That led them to join Fogarty’s Company Accelerator Program (CAP), which provides guidance to young companies aiming to hit their next milestone. As part of the program, they will work intensively with Fogarty’s internal, cross-functional team of seasoned mentors, and have access to practical educational programs, top-tier external resources and a world-class facility. The Immergo team will begin the six-month program in January with the aim of developing their commercialization plan and launch.
“We have been impressed with the mission of Fogarty Innovation to help find new solutions to intractable medical problems that will lead to better outcomes,” Michael said. “We are eager to learn from the expertise of Fogarty Innovation’s team and take Immergo Labs to the next level.”