Meet the Melbourne clinicians reading brain signals to help the paralysed move
A minimally-invasive technology that transmits brain signals to wheelchairs, bionic arms or other devices could help those with amputations, paralysis or multiple sclerosis to move again.
Called the stentrode, the device can be delivered via a blood vessel in the neck—meaning patients don’t need to undergo brain surgery.
The start-up developing the stentrode (called Synchron) is looking to begin human clinical trials at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in early 2018—but without some early support, the Melbourne team behind the idea would never have seen it leave the lab.
In 2014, Dr Nick Opie, Dr Thomas Oxley and Dr Rahul Sharma took the top prize in the inaugural MedTech’s Got Talent—now an annual, nation-wide competition helping people get their medtech ideas off the ground.
“MedTech’s Got Talent helped us learn how to translate our ideas into a commercial opportunity,” says Nick, a biomedical engineer from The University of Melbourne who helped design and create the stentrode.
Over several months, they took part in an Accelerated Technology Roadmapping program which included intense mentorship and workshops, as well as other sessions relevant to commercialisation.
“We had a research grant from The University of Melbourne, but no money to investigate commercial activities—for example getting professional advice on risk management, branding, budgeting or business plans.
“I imagine these are the same reasons that people apply now—to get help with things that aren’t supported in conventional research grants,” Nick says.
“The Medtech’s Got Talent program involved sessions on IP, how to navigate the medical technology landscape and evaluate ideas, how to maximise on the technology you’ve got, how to pitch to investors, and how to find investors that would be a good fit for you.”
Nick says the program provided exposure to funding opportunities that weren’t research-based, which they wouldn’t have otherwise heard of.
“But when we finished, there was still the question of ‘what’s next?’” Nick says.
“The Actuator, which is the new initiative from the team behind MedTech’s Got Talent, answers that question. I imagine there are a lot of people in Australia now—maybe even some who’ve been through to MedTech’s Got Talent—with early-stage ideas that they’re unsure how to progress. It will be great to have a program that supports these projects. I’m excited to see how it all turns out.”
The stentrode technology arose from a collaboration between SmartStent (now incorporated by Synchron), The University of Melbourne and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and has also received funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian Research Council, the Office of Naval Research Global, the US Department of Defense and Westpac.
Nick and his team, which spans from Melbourne to Silicon Valley, are now preparing for a world-first human trial which will be conducted at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2018.