Technological advancements in the medical field are vital to improving the way patients receive care. In many cases, there is a need for more resources to be directed towards patient care. But the current reality for many patients, especially children with chronic illnesses, is that medical professionals and families are often forced to carry a heavy load in caring for them.

To address this need within the healthcare sector, there has been an uptick in the size of Australia’s medtech startup community, with the NSW government expecting the industry to create 28,000 jobs and add AU$18 billion in gross domestic product to Australia by 2025.

Among the medtech startups in Australia is ikkiworks, which developed a companion robot that helps soothe and monitor the vital signs of children with chronic illness while they are away from the hospital.

The companion robot, called ikki, is touted as being able to monitor the types of medication taken, schedule medication times, measure temperature and breathing, and calm children down, among other functions. This data is also logged onto the ikkiworks app so that it is accessible by the child’s family or clinicians.

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(Image: ikkiworks) robot is portable and can be held so it can be used across a range of environments, such as in schools, homes, outdoors, or the hospital, and also be used by parents while simultaneously taking care of their children.

It was developed with input from clinical staff, patients, and their families at Westmead Children’s Hospital, according to ikkiworks.

State government-backed agency Jobs for NSW provided ikkiworks with a AU$25,000 grant to help make the ikki robot be more robust for its use with children.

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Development for ikki was driven by a need for a better way to monitor children with chronic medical conditions, ikkiworks co-founder Clive McFarland explained to TechRepublic. Monitoring the health of these children often poses many challenges as they are often in and out of hospital for various treatments, and are more susceptible to illnesses that can worsen their health due to treatments wiping out their immune systems.

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Beyond taking care of children with chronic illnesses, McFarland says the robot provides a secondary benefit of taking on some of the jobs usually performed by parents and clinicians. While there is often a fear that technology will take away jobs, McFarland sees ikki–and the potential of medtech generally–as an opportunity for patients and caretakers to make their lives easier. In doing so, ikki is able to relieve some of the stress that families experience when taking care of a sick child and managing the treatment process, which is often a key issue when dealing with a child’s condition.

The importance of developing medtech for engagement

If the NSW Department of Industry is to be believed, the medtech industry is booming in Australia, especially in New South Wales, with the department’s numbers claiming around 1,100 medtech businesses in the state–which accounts for 37 percent of the national total. These businesses generate AU$4.8 billion in revenue every year, export AU$573 million in products, and employ about 7,000 people.

However, a key focus for the medical field will be to ensure that medtech is developed with patient engagement in mind, McFarland said. “If children are bored with the tech, they will not use it, and this is something that has been a developing aspect in the medtech space.”

During the initial development stages of ikki, the medtech startup called on an industrial designer to help create the companion robot. Ikkiworks wanted to ensure that the technology was something children would want to use.

What surprised McFarland during the development of ikki, however, was how people–particularly children–engaged with medtech devices on a day-to-day basis. Beyond the implementation of games, which McFarland acknowledged as being a useful way to keep children entertained, an interesting development that arose was the high level of interest in using something that was three-dimensional and tactile as it “prompted users to hold ikki a certain way”.

Ikki has a “silicon rubber belly panel” which can be pressed by children to play games, or commence breathing exercises to calm them down, and reportedly evokes a more open reaction from children.

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(Image: ikkiworks)

The ikki robot was also designed to be the child’s–not their parent’s–responsibility, McFarland says, which enables sick children to be engaged when using the medtech and feel empowered during the treatment process.

“They don’t lose any control over the process, they have responsibility for checking their temperature, they have to tell their parent at what time they take their medication, so they’re back in the middle of the process.”

But the impact of medtech devices, even after they receive regulatory approval, can still vary greatly depending on the manner it is rolled out to patients, McFarland said. An issue within the medtech field, is that people often have a great piece of medtech, but it is imposed onto patients that don’t necessarily need them, or it is done in a manner that does not cater to the specific needs of the patient.

To overcome this, ikki is only rolled out to patients after a consultative process with the relevant clinical team, who evaluates whether the technology is appropriate for addressing the specific condition at hand.

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Ikkiworks currently has plans for a larger trial of its ikki robot, and aims to make ikki robots available across Australia. Operating within the medtech sector, McFarland says he is confident that the startup’s plans will come to fruition.

Unlike for pharmaceuticals, where drug development often takes 10 to 15 years to complete and has a risk-adjusted average cost of between $1.5 billion to $2.6 billion, the dynamic in medtech is different. According to the not-for-profit organisation MTPConnect, the development timeframe and cost for medtech products is typically only between four to 10 years, and has risk-adjusted average costs of $30 million. As a result, small and medium-sized medtech companies, like ikkiworks, are more likely to be able to take a product all the way through to an in-market launch.

Moving forward, regardless of whether ikki is used only in Westmead Children’s Hospital or around the world, McFarland says he is optimistic about the future of medtech and the direction it is headed–particularly the way it can help patients be more involved in their own road to recovery.

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