Published: 19 OCT 2023
Technology

Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s medtech startups are addressing big issues faced by the global health sector, such as labour shortages and increasing costs. Innovators are looking at ways technology can support efficiency – through, for instance, seamless integration of medical devices and wearables into electronic health records. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are automating patient data, analysis and triage, and are streamlining admin. The transition of healthcare into communities is empowering patients with technologies they can use for self-care and self-diagnosis – and, in doing so, address some of the inequities in the system. We spoke to three of Auckland’s top medtech innovators.

 

Toku

Dr Ehsan Vaghefi (bioengineer) and Dr David Squirrell (ophthalmologist) co-founded Toku (formerly Toku Eyes) to improve eye screening in areas such as myopia, macular degeneration, and retinopathy in patients with diabetes. They ran successful clinical trials using artificial intelligence software to prevent blindness. Now, they’ve introduced an AI-powered platform that includes scanning for cardiovascular risk using retinal imaging to evaluate a person’s overall health.

An issue with current cardiovascular screening is that traditionally it would involve a trip to a general medical practitioner, then a referral to a specialist, with multiple blood tests, specialised testing such as CT scans, and slow progress through an often-clogged health system. The founders’ vision is to see the screening available in optometrists on high streets and in malls as a non-invasive, low-cost, real-time alternative to current methods. Dr Vaghefi says the platform can process images faster than humans, identify problems a human might miss, and be driven by a less qualified clinician, thus saving costs and improving overall efficiency.

“More than 80 per cent of cardiac events and diabetes-related blindness could be prevented by identifying risk and applying targeted interventions. We are building a future in which more people have affordable access to this critical health data — all from analysing a retinal image,” says Dr Vaghefi.

Part of the success of Toku stems from the combination of a clinician and a technologist. The company completed a US$8 million Series A round of capital raising in April 2023, attracting investment from original backer Icehouse Ventures and importantly, two overseas optometry companies, National Vision (with more than 1300 optical retail outlets in the United States and Puerto Rico) and Japan’s Topcon Healthcare (an eye examination instrument maker). It’s expected the two big investors will also be the company’s largest customers. Toku had earlier raised NZ$3.6 million in seed funding after emerging from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) at the University of Auckland.

 

Formus Labs

Invest - News - Medtech - Innovators - Formus Labs

Formus Labs has created an AI-automated 3D planner for joint replacement surgeries. Chief Executive Dr Ju Zhang says currently one in five knee replacements are unsatisfactory and one in ten hip replacements need to be revisited, costing the orthopaedic industry around US$10 billion each year. These operations require a custom surgical plan, but surgeons are often time-constrained due to heavy caseloads and busy practices. The software does the pre-operative planning, analysing CT scans to help select the right components for surgery and the position in which they should be placed. As the company puts it, “This technology provides highly accurate outputs from scan to plan in under an hour.”

In April 2023, the company received 510(k) clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Formus Hip as the first “automated radiological image processing software” for hip replacement pre-op planning. It has now begun making its solution widely available to surgeons and healthcare providers.

“FDA clearance serves as significant validation of the accuracy and rigour of our AI models. The surgeons who have used the Formus platform in Australia and New Zealand tell us they like having pre-op plans that make facing any unforeseen challenges on the day of the surgery easier to overcome because of the thorough understanding of each patient’s physiology. It also has huge potential to save costs, time spent on logistics, and inventory,” says Dr Zhang.

Formus Labs is considering a Series A capital raising round in 2024 and in future may look at what can be done with muscles, ligaments and tendons surrounding joints. The company is part of ABI’s successful startup cohort. Its FDA success followed a US$5 million capital raise in 2022, led by venture capital firm Global from Day One (GDI), with participation from Punakaiki Fund, Icehouse Ventures, Pacific Channel and Flying Kiwi Angels.

  

RespirAq

RespirAq is a company developed by Auckland University of Technology (AUT) researchers to commercialise innovative respiratory technology.

Patients on artificial ventilation need the air they breathe to be artificially humidified to prevent airway damage. Existing medical humidifiers require a water supply and have problems with condensation forming in the air supply tubes. RespirAq removes the need for bulky water supply, tubing and sensors. Instead, it uses a chemically activated ‘smart fabric’ to humidify the air breathed by patients on ventilators and other types of respiratory support.

Chemical engineer and now RespirAq CEO Dr Sandra Grau-Bartual co-invented the fabric, taking an alternative approach to solving the condensation challenge.

“Medical humidification has traditionally been approached as a physics problem, but the insight behind RespirAq technology was approached as a chemistry problem: how to controllably and efficiently bond and release a large number of water molecules,” says Dr Grau-Bartual.

RespirAq is the result of more than 10 years of research by Professor Ahmed Al-Jumaily into improving respiratory humidification and therapies at the AUT Institute of Biomedical Technologies, which he leads. Dr Grau-Bartual completed her PhD under his supervision.

RespirAq’s commercialisation journey, led by AUT Ventures, included NZ$450,000 funding from KiwiNet in 2019, an amount which was matched by internal investment. AUT Ventures then won a further NZ$169,000 from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in 2020 as part of its COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Funding. This was used to fund a successful clinical study and to advance the technology for hospital applications, such as COVID-19 treatment. In 2022, Respiraq secured a further NZ$1.5 million in investment from Outset Ventures, Icehouse Ventures, and Cure Kids Ventures.

In 2021, the RespirAq team completed an in-hospital feasibility study in collaboration with Waikato Hospital, and the results showed the safety and efficacy of the RespirAq Active Humidifier surpassing the humidification standards.