Smartphone apps and wearable devices are increasingly allowing people to monitor and improve their health, both physical and mental. Combining sensors with cloud-based data services, they let you do everything from monitoring your heartbeat during a run to meditating on the train – all on a tiny screen.
One reading that’s proven difficult or inconvenient for consumers to take themselves is blood pressure. That’s according to Hertforshire-based Tarilian Laser Technologies (or TLT), which has developed a “revolutionary” wearable medical device called ViCardio.
Set up by husband and wife Dr Sandeep and Nita Shah 10 years ago, TLT has chosen Leeds – a city that was recently touted as a future world leader in healthtech – to partner with digital companies who will oversee some of the operational platforms for the new ViCardio product.
A wrist worn device that resembles a faceless smartwatch, it could be set to displace the “ubiquitous and dated” inflatable cuff-based mercury manometer that has existed since 1881.
“People don’t really engage with the old-fashioned manometer – it doesn’t slot into modern-day life anymore,” says TLT CEO, medical doctor and technologist Sandeep. “They are very difficult to use, give a poor patient experience and are quite expensive.”
Nita, who is TLT’s CTO and has an eclectic background spanning clinical virology and molecular biology, agrees: “The cuffs don’t always fit well – especially if you have an ageing or obese population – and they need calibrating twice a year.
“On top of that, people don’t like their arm being squeezed, so they have an instinctive flinch that could give really high readings that are not truly reflective of blood pressure.”
Should TLT successfully disrupt the blood pressure monitoring space, the reward could be huge.
“It’s the single biggest medical market in the world with over $30bn in value and growing substantially,” says Sandeep. “Additionally, problems with blood pressure are responsible for the majority of deaths around the world and problems with human health, so it’s a significant issue.”
TLT’s solution has been to innovate around a “unique” sensor inside ViCardio that has been developed in the UK. The Sapphire sensor, which is the size of a fingernail and the thickness of a business card, uses fibre-optic technology.
Development of it began in an unlikely place – the Shahs’ garden shed.
“Sandeep would come home from his clinic and moan about not being able to take patients’ blood pressure readings,” Nita recalls. “I told him to do something about it, so he bought a piece of specialist kit that reads blood flow in legs. I relegated him to the garden shed and he sat there playing with it, coming up with ideas.”
Nita began to lend her electronic engineering skills to the project, and before long engineers were recruited to work on the sensor under the company’s guidance. Five years later, it was market-ready.
The sensor works by detecting light and sending it to a button that rests against the wearer’s wrist, bobbling up and down when blood flows through the artery. The button’s movement creates a change in the light, which generates a pattern and continually calculates blood pressure – 88 readings per minute versus one with a cuff.
According to TLT’s first clinical study, ViCardio is more accurate than a cuff. It found that blood pressure readings using ViCardio resulted in less deviation in mercury (the scale of accuracy for blood pressure monitoring, with zero being best), coming in at 2.8mm versus the 4.5mm that a doctor would typically achieve with a cuff.
A second study, which compares ViCardio’s accuracy versus intra-arterial lines (the “gold standard”) used in hospitals before patients enter surgery, is being conducted at St Bartholomew’s Heart Centre – Europe’s largest cardiovascular research centre. Although the study is ongoing, Sandeep offers one major reason to score a point to ViCardio now.
“We remove the risk of infection and damage to the body, particularly blood vessels, because nothing goes inside the body,” he says. “Because of the way we work we don’t disrupt any of the vascular flow in the body, unlike intra-arterial lines, which makes us unique.”
Hit the North
The company has moved some of its operations to Leeds, and is running the sales, support and distribution hub, in addition to support for its accompanying ViCardio smartphone app, in Headingley.
One driver of this was the recruitment of Dr. David Pearce, a medical professional who turned tech investor and has invested in startups that include Northern Stars 2017 winners Synap and Tutorful, as non-executive director. Through Pearce they learnt about other digital companies around Yorkshire – from Statement in Wakefield who is heading up ViCardio’s ecommerce operation – to Calls9 who is developing its app.
The latter allows users to check notes attached to readings which indicate whether they were calm, stressed or exercising at the time that blood pressure was monitored.
“You can query thousands of records in the system in under a second, and you can see your blood pressure readings for the last six or 12 months,” says Adam Roney, Calls9’s CEO. “It’s easy and powerful, allowing people to share that data with their physicians if they want to.”
For Nita, the way that the region’s companies came together to collaborate on ViCardio’s mission only increased her enthusiasm for the region.
“We needed companies that knew what they were doing and could things in a really fast turnaround time and work together,” she says. “As a small company based down south, that’s the way we work, and we needed likeminded people who we found as soon as we came up here.
“The pool of talent that was here was really refreshing, as was the ability by which they could get the same vision as us, understand us really quickly and actually deliver what we needed in a very efficient manner.”
Sandeep, Nita and Dr. Pearce, as well as his partners at Nephos Solutions, are taking ViCardio to Kickstarter in April. That’s when consumers will be able to order the first version of the product that will be compatible out-of-the-box with EMIS and TPP’s GP systems.
Nita is hoping that ViCardio’s adoption will lead to more people taking precautionary care of their health.
“We want to make blood pressure monitoring faster, easier and more proactive – that’s the long-term objective here,” she says. “We don’t want to be be curing problems at the other end.”