Parkinson’s disease: how a new device is helping patients to keep walking
When Lise Pape’s elderly father started having trouble walking, as a result of his Parkinson’s disease, she was at a loss on how to help him.
Freezing of gait (FoG) is a common symptom of the disease and results in the person appearing to be stuck to the ground. Pape explains: “You might see someone just stopping suddenly as though glued to the floor. This is a very common cause of falls.” It can be hard to start walking again. “My father could only overcome it if someone placed their foot in front of his, then he was instantly able to step across and ‘break’ the freezing. It worked almost like magic.” This observation gave her an idea.
Pape, who is from Denmark and has been studying and working in the UK since 2011, wanted to create a device or product that could help with FoG problems without causing side effects. “Some of the main drugs used can cause hallucinations, then the drug to stop this can cause constipation. You end up with a cascade of different drugs.”
So in 2014 she designed Path Finder, a shoe attachment with a laser that projects a horizontal green line on to the ground in front of the user. Studies have shown that visual and auditory cues can improve walking. The line guides the movement of the user’s other leg – having a horizontal line to step over helps break the freezing. This cue is automatic and assimilates to the user’s step pattern.
Most business founders will talk about suddenly having to be an expert in a wide range of subjects and Pape’s CV is almost the perfect blueprint for a healthcare tech entrepreneur. With a background working and studying in human biology, finance, advertising and product development, Pape was studying engineering at InnovationRCA, the centre for enterprise, entrepreneurship, incubation and business support at the Royal College of Art in London, when she came up with the idea for the system.
She worked closely on the idea with a partner from her RCA class, Florian Puech, who had an engineering background. Then the RCA’s own incubator helped the duo get more structure to their idea and work through the business basics, such as getting a legal agreement in place. They joined the global startup accelerator Mass Challenge and obtained grants from the Dyson Foundation, Helen Hamlyn Trust and Nesta, among others.
In 2016 she got her first angel investors on board, which enabled her to finally take the product to market. Setting up manufacturing and suppliers in China presented some problems. “I really tried to find a UK-based manufacturer,” says Pape, “but it proved so difficult. There were lots of unknowns.” Finally she found an agent on the ground in Shanghai, who came recommended through her investors network.
Throughout the development process, Pape and her team engaged with people with Parkinson’s disease to help inform the final design. Users with less dexterity found the original design difficult to manage, so they made the whole device more moveable.
And there were still the inevitable issues attached to product iteration. Creating a device that was as small as possible meant having to source a non-standard (and rarer) battery size. “As a result we had to obtain certification, and this cost time and money.”
Even when you have a great idea, the startup process can take far longer than you ever imagine, says Pape. Other issues she encountered included having a target market who were aged 70 and above, not known for being active on social media. This meant going after offline marketing opportunities – and finding ways to get around frequent distrust among this demographic.
Her company, Walk With Path, now has four people on board, plus a weighty team of highly qualified consultants and mentors. It is developing a second product for people with walking problems – a shoe insole with pressure sensors to trigger vibrations when the foot hits the ground, compensating for lack of sensation.
The Path Finder has just had clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration, which means the company should be able to start selling there before the end of the year. “There’s still some paperwork to be done but we’re over the biggest hurdle. We’re very happy about that,” says Pape.
The business has also been approached by other industries, including construction, to look at ways in which its tech can help. This ability to change tack is important in a startup, says Pape: “Though we haven’t had to, I have seen many startups doing well by being prepared to pivot, using their ideas in entirely different ways.”
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