Following Path’s successful appearance at the Health Social Innovators (HSI) Challenge Day on 25 June, we caught up with the inventor of the product, Lise Pape, to find out about her journey from investment banker to health-tech entrepreneur, the biggest challenges in healthcare today, and some of the advantages of living in the more insalubrious areas of Soho…
Denmark-born Lise founded Walk with Path [Path] in 2014 whilst studying Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. Path’s products, Path Feel and Path Finder, are designed to reduce the risk of falls. Unlike more conventional walking aids (e.g. walking sticks), the Path Feel insole is an unobtrusive way to help those with mobility issues maintain their independence. The team recently expanded, adding two employees in London, alongside Lise, with a further team member based in France.
Caroline Hickson, Numbers4Good (CH): How did you come up with the idea for Path?
Lise Pape, Path (LP): My starting point was very much based on user-centred design, and I then decided to focus on the problems of Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. The initial reason was that my father has Parkinson’s, so I know the area quite well as a family member, and I am aware that his medication doesn’t address many of the day-to-day symptoms and challenges he encounters.
I started exploring more widely what it means to live with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis for both patients and family members… I decided to focus in on mobility because that the fear of falling really stood out as a key unaddressed concern of the patient – if your mobility is declining and you’re unlucky enough to break a leg, there’s a real big risk you might not walk again.
CH: The Path Insole and Path Finder can work both separately and together, is that correct?
LP: Exactly. The insole provides haptic feedback using vibration in the insole. It is intended for people who can’t properly feel the floor that they walk on, [such as] people with neuropathy as a result of MS, for instance, but also as a result of diabetes, ageing, spinal cord injuries, or even as a result of chemotherapy. What we’re trying to do with the haptic feedback is to enhance that natural response you have when you touch the floor.
The visual cue shoe, Path Finder, is quite specific to Parkinson’s. There’s a symptom there called ‘freezing of gait’, where when a person is walking, they suddenly feel like their feet have become glued to the floor and here they are at risk of falling. Visual cues have been proven in many scientific research studies to stimulate gait and that’s also what we found in our testing.
The common denominator for both products is the risk of falling and trying to reduce that.
CH: What is the revenue model for Path?
LP: We’re looking at obtaining approval as a medical device. We believe we’ll have a better reach by doing this because it’ll be possible for the products to be integrated into healthcare plans and made available to all those who need it – irrespective of income. It could be sold through hospitals, insurance companies or care institutions.
CH: What geographic markets are you looking at?
LP: Europe and the US are our biggest potential markets. We still have to determine which one we do first. I’ve heard from a lot of other companies that the UK in particular is very difficult because it’s hard to sell into the NHS.
CH: What, in your opinion, has the biggest capacity to change the current healthcare landscape, e.g. wearables?
LP: I do think wearables have a big role to play. But I still think that [they] are at a stage where we’re collecting a lot of data and monitoring, and what’s done with that information that we collect, how it is interpreted and how it is used still has to be discovered and detailed. That’s where we’re trying to make a difference by developing wearables that have an active role instead of just being passive.
CH: In your view, what is the greatest challenge in healthcare today?
LP: It’s really important to design things that are based on the user and what they want. A lot of medical devices, I think, become stigmatised because they’re not very attractive. The key to medical design is to design for everybody. You should make it in an inclusive way, so that it becomes a product that anyone would want – not just for somebody because they need it.
CH: You mentioned your interest was initially in user-centred design and you’ve applied that to this particular problem. How did you end up focussing on this? Was it always a passion?
LP: I was always interested in design but I did various things. I did a Bachelors degree in Human Biology, and worked for a little while in a laboratory doing some medical research. After that I worked in advertising, I worked in JP Morgan in banking, and I worked at the Danish embassy doing business development for life sciences. But throughout, probably for about five years before I started my masters, I was doing a lot of evening courses in various areas of art and design – anything from creative writing to jewellery making to fashion design – to identify which one was the most fascinating for me. When I came across the innovation design engineering program [at Imperial College and the Royal College of Art], I thought it was exactly right for me because it combines the more scientific side with design.
CH: From banking to advertising to helping Danish businesses invest is quite a varied career! How have your past experiences helped you along the way?
LP: I think quite a few of my experiences have actually been very helpful. My initial human biology degree was quite helpful for me to start reading scientific papers about these disease areas and drug development. [In JP Morgan] I was in Product Development, working with stakeholders – anyone from risk to compliance to technology – in managing the process of developing a new product. That has some application to what I’m doing now, which is also about getting regulatory approvals, thinking about risk management, etc.
Even my last job before going back to university in business development in life sciences has been quite key, because that was very much a networking and sales role. I was responsible for job creation into Denmark and that meant meeting with quite senior executives in Life Sciences companies. I think that’s helped me now in trying to establish partnerships and understand how you engage with people on that level.
CH: Had you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
LP: Actually yes! I wanted to do that for a long time. That was my reason to go back to Imperial and RCA to do this course: it was with the view to launch my own business at the end of it. It’s kind of always been my dream but I needed the right opportunity as well, and I needed to have something to develop.
CH: What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
LP: It’s a challenge every day and I enjoy driving something forward that has a purpose for me. I also enjoy the freedom. I think you end up probably working more hours than working 9-5, but you can choose when that is, within reason of course!
CH: What’s the worst thing about being an entrepreneur?
LP: When you’re working by yourself it can be quite lonely and you have a lot of responsibility. That can seem a bit daunting because the choices you make could very well be wrong choices. You’ve got to make them, because otherwise you won’t progress, but there’s a risk in all of that. I think it really helps to have a team that you can discuss things with. You might still make wrong choices, but at least you feel like perhaps you have grounded reason for making those choices.
CH: What do you wish you’d known before starting Path?
LP: I wish I had started my own venture earlier on. I have learned so much over the past year, and I expect that the learning will only continue. It is exciting, and although it’s hard at times, it is very fulfilling.
CH: What has surprised you most about being an entrepreneur?
LP: I think that there is a wealth of support and information out there, much more so than I expected. There are a host of initiatives across London every single day. It’s very positive, but it becomes important to focus and pick only the events that can actually help you.
CH: What has been your best failure?
LP: The prototype for Path Feel has been a serious challenge due to the strain and forces applied onto it in the shoe. Some of the early prototypes were not very robust, and hence did not last for as long as desired. Therefore, this has been a major development point, and we have now reached a stage where our prototypes are designed to withstand forces in different directions. This has been achieved by developing a protective case for the electronics board and the battery, which was a challenge in itself due to the space constraint.
CH: Finally, can you tell us a secret?
LP: I wasn’t quite prepared for this question! Umm…
I lived in Soho for five years on top of a strip club; we shared the same entrance. It was very secure because there’s a bouncer at all times of the day!
Applications are currently open for Numbers4Good’s Health Social Innovators Programme. UK entrepreneurs with innovations that generate a social impact in healthcare are encouraged to apply by 12pm on 25 September. The program will start in January 2016. For more details or to apply, please go to http://www.healthsocialinnovators.org.