In 2013, we met a gentleman who said: “I’m very happy now, but I look angry because Parkinson’s disease took away my smile.” Since then, our aim has been to bring smiles back for people with Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder affecting around 145,000 people in the UK. It has no cure. Despite the best medical and surgical treatment available, many people remain frustrated by their disease. It’s characterised by the symptoms of bradykinesia, rigidity and tremor, but has many other symptoms which are often difficult to treat. This is exacerbated as the symptoms progress with ageing. This has a significantly negative impact on independence, health and quality of life.
Building on the work of namesake Professor Charcot, a nineteenth-century doctor nicknamed the father of neurology, we’ve developed the CUE1 wearable device. It uses pulsed cueing and focused vibrotactile stimulation to reduce slowness and stiffness in those living with Parkinson’s disease, resulting in their improved movement.
Developed by a diverse team of engineers, doctors and neuroscientists, CUE1 offers a novel, non-invasive approach to increasing quality of life for people with Parkinson’s. Using removable medical adhesive to rest on the sternum and activated by the simple push of a button, the CUE1’s vibrotactile stimulation can provide an immediate relief of symptoms.
User testing has resulted in an average improvement of nine points of the UPDRS score (the gold standard for assessing Parkinson’s) – three times the minimum improvement required for an invention to be considered clinically important. We’ve also seen improvement across movement tasks, such as using tools, manipulating objects, walking and more. Most importantly, participants felt their movement was smoother and better controlled.
Where did the idea originate?
Our development process starts and ends by listening to people with Parkinson’s. The initial spark came from a conversation we had with a gentleman who told us he experienced some relief from his Parkinson’s symptoms after sitting in a massage chair. From here, we dug deeper to find the mechanism behind this, becoming familiar with Professor Charcot’s work on full-body vibration to treat Parkinson’s, as well as the more recent body of research into the benefits of focused vibrotactile stimulation and cueing for people with Parkinson’s.
We constructed several prototypes based on our research and spent time with a fantastic group of people with Parkinson’s to test them, see what worked and what didn’t, and improve our device. Without their incredible generosity and input, we wouldn’t have been able to refine CUE1 into what it is today, so we’re eternally grateful to them!
How did your team meet?
Our founders, Lucy and Floyd, have known each other for years and had already worked on several projects together while Lucy carried out her Master’s in Innovation Design Engineering at Imperial and Floyd trained as a junior doctor.
The rest of the team has formed over time through our networks and by talking to people at events such as the Imperial Enterprise Lab Innovation Pitch, which is where we met our Operations Manager, Alex. The binding element, common to all our team members and essential to any new additions, is moral fibre and passion for helping people via the implementation of simple, innovative and non-invasive technology. This ethos, and a genuine excitement at the opportunity to work with people with Parkinson’s to improve their quality of life, is the glue holding Charco together.
Do you have any advisers?
Our very first adviser was Govind Pindoria, who we met through our participation in the Imperial College White City Innovators’ Programme. His advice, input and support has been indispensable throughout our journey. We’re beyond thankful for his continued confidence in our team and business – from the early days to where we are now.
We were also supported by the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service (IVMS) in setting the business up, developing financial projections, navigating legal requirements and preparing for clinical trials – particularly by Peter, Jason, Justin and Neil.
What stage is the business at and what are your plans moving forward?
We see ourselves as being at a critical point in our journey right now. We’ll shortly be proceeding with our first run of pre-production units, after which our full production process will commence. CUE1 has gone through CE marking, and Charco Neurotech is ISO 13485 certified. We hope to hold our priority launch, with a limited number of units, later this year.
In preparation for this huge milestone, we’re refocusing our efforts on spreading the word to as many people with Parkinson’s as possible, so we can have the biggest possible positive impact on their lives.
What’s been your biggest success so far?
The whole Charco journey so far has been punctuated by many highs, as well as the daily challenges that come with building a startup. By far the best days have been those when we know we’ve made a difference to people’s lives. Whether it’s a day of successful testing with one of our amazing community members, or something as simple as an appreciative reply when we answer someone’s question over email, these experiences remind us of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
It’s also been impossible not to feel a little proud – and very excited – as we’ve watched CUE1 transform from an early workshop prototype to the sleek and professional product it has now become. Every time we receive a new sample, opening the package is like opening a Christmas present!
Another thing to be proud of is the team that we’ve built. It’s amazing to think that we started with just two founders and a few mentors, but now have ten dedicated team members – a number that seems to keep growing! We feel incredibly lucky to have such a diverse, hard-working and passionate group of people who share our vision of improving life for people with Parkinson’s and other long-term conditions.
Our most recent milestone has been closing our seed round of investment. This is a result of hard work from the whole team, and gives us the ability to have the biggest possible impact on people’s lives in a short space of time.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
We constantly struggle with not being able to get CUE1 to those who need it now. We want to release the device as soon as possible, but are acutely aware that doing things right – especially in the medical-device world – takes time. Knowing that a certain step is necessary for CUE1 to make it into the world successfully is a psychological challenge – especially if it means it will delay our device release by an extra week.
Aside from this, the everyday challenges of running a startup are difficult at times. Keeping track of all the different aspects that need to be considered is a juggling act – from team building to finance to marketing to product development to regulatory hurdles. Thankfully, as the team grows we can dedicate more and more bright minds to each challenge and that makes the entire process not only more manageable, but also much more enjoyable!
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Building a startup is not easy. Everyone who pursues entrepreneurship is bound to make some mistakes, and even established startups make them every day. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes of your own! Part of the ethos at the heart of Charco, and many other successful startups, is that there’s no such thing as failure – only opportunities to learn. Going in with this mentality will serve you well in your journey. So will trying not to focus solely on the outward successes of the startups you look up to.
When the time comes to build your team (and this may be from day one, when forming your founding team) it’s important to find people for your venture who share your vision and believe in the values you hold. Hiring one person who is the right fit is infinitely more valuable than any number of people whose views don’t align with those of your company. Diversity of educational and social backgrounds is extremely important in your team, too. Having a rich mix of unique experience and opinions will often breed ideas and strategies you would never have thought of in a group of similar-minded people!