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Montreal Gazette: Jintronix takes physical therapy into the virtual world

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MONTREAL – Justin Tan and his associates at Jintronix, try a Montreal software startup, hear it a lot: Aren’t they a bit young to be in the medical business?

“I get that all the time,” the 24-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and entrepreneur said. “Not just from patients and physical therapists, but from investors, too.

“To be frank, that’s a challenge we all have to overcome.”

It’s a fair question, but Tan and his 20-something colleagues — friends since their days at Selwyn House, the exclusive Westmount boy’s school — use their youth as an asset.

They parlayed a three-month stint at Microsoft’s accelerator program in Seattle last spring into $1.5 million in seed money to test their innovative product in clinics in and around Montreal.

By next summer, it should be ready for sale: a software package that works with Microsoft Corp.’s Kinect motion-sensing platform so that rehab patients can exercise at home, looking at a screen.

The idea was born of experience: Tan learned all about physical and cognitive therapy at close hand several years ago when his father, Montreal fertility physician Seang Lin Tan, had a stroke.

“When we tell people that this is driven from personal experience and that we’re very passionate about what we do, it sort of makes up for our lack of experience,” Jintronix’s founder said.

“Ultimately, we know we’re only going to be able to take a risk in life when we’re young,” said Tan, who studied biomechanical engineering at MIT and public health at Cambridge University.

Born in Singapore, Tan comes from a family of achievers. His brother, Leonard, 28, recently graduated in law in the U.S. Their mother, Grace, ran the M.D. MBA program at McGill University.

Their father is renowned for his clinical research work at the Royal Victoria Hospital’s reproductive centre, and was only in his mid-50s when he had his stroke. He’s now fully recovered.

His experience of rehab left something to be desired: fun.

“It’s a rather antiquated process, pretty much what it was in Second World War,” Tan said. Patients see their therapist, go home to do their exercises, come back to the clinic to do more and get evaluated.

The movements they do are usually mundane, rarely pleasurable: figure-eights and such. Tan thought there was a better way, so for his senior thesis in his final year at MIT, he found a solution.

He hacked a Nintendo Wii motion-tracking device and successfully tested it with rehab patients at a hospital in Boston, winning an MIT award for new ideas.

After his stint at Cambridge, he returned to Montreal and got busy.

He assembled his team, did a market study, saw there was a need in Southeast Asia where his family is from. Failing to find financing there, he turned to private investors in Canada.

The team developed a prototype using the Kinect platform, which got them to Microsoft in Seattle, which got them more investors. With Health Canada approval, the official launch is set for June.

Tan is keeping his development team here in Montreal, because Quebec has some generous multimedia tax break programs — very generous, in fact.

They allow him to pay 60 to 80 per cent of his developers’ salaries. There are four on staff now, soon doubling to eight, and they earn between $55,000 and $85,000 a year.

The business side of Jintronix, however, will be based in Seattle.

The team had a baseline software platform ready in September, and is now testing it in clinics in Montreal, Laval and Hawkesbury, Ont., with Toronto, Boston and Seattle soon to come.

“There’s definitely a future for this,” said Emmanuel Lo Monaco, owner of Hawkesbury Physical Therapy, where the device has been tested on half-a-dozen neurology patients since October.

“One of our biggest difficulties is mobilizing handicapped people to come to the hospital or clinic, especially if they live far away. With this, they can stay at home and do the therapy remotely.”

At Jintronix’s office in an old building next to Future Shop on Ste. Catherine St. W. in downtown Montreal, programmer Lex Youssef showed how the machine works.

He simulated a couple of exercises on the screen, sat back and performed the movements, closing his hands over virtual objects, bringing his hands together.

“These are exercises to build motor skills, but they also allow the clinician to evaluate the progress the patient is making,” said Youssef, the company’s chief technology officer.

The device connects to a patient’s PC. The software records how well each exercise is performed, and that data is accessible on Jintronix’s web portal to the clinician.

In one exercise, fish chase other fish around the screen, manipulated by the patient. The clinician can read the “score,” such as how many centimetres per second the patient moves.

The clinician can then raise the level of difficulty. The software also records how much time a patient spends on each exercise, proof whether they’ve been doing them properly — or at all.

One of the bottlenecks in development Jintronix faced was figuring out which movements to tailor the software to; Which ones had been clinically validated. Hence the testing with physios.

For now, communication between the physio and the patient works via a simple messaging system, but it eventually will be adapted for video conferencing, live viewing and streaming.

Won’t patients miss seeing their therapist?

No, Tan replied, because “this isn’t meant to replace the face-to-face contact — it’s meant to supplement it outside the office, when the patient is not with the physical therapist.”

The problem now is that patients see their physio once a week or maybe twice a month. In between is the problem, Tan said. Patients get a list of exercises to do, but don’t do them to the letter.

Some just give up, halting their progress until their next visit to their physio, who can only ask — but not see — how well they’ve been performing.

But won’t all this cost more? Not at all, Tan replied.

All patients would need is a Kinect machine, which retails for about $200. They’d also pay their physio a fee — about $50 to $100 every three months — for monitoring their progress remotely.

Tan expects that because of the out-of-clinic cost savings, the technology will eventually be covered by medicare, or if not, then by insurance companies.

The applications are endless: stroke patients, people with brain or spinal-cord injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome and other congenital diseases and such.

The market in North America for rehab services is huge — about $20 billion, with 1.1 million new patients in the system every year. If Jintronix can capture just a fraction of that, it’ll be a bonanza.

It’s not as if Tan and his team are getting old waiting.

“The perspective we have is, we’re young enough and we have enough freedom in our lives that we can do something like this,” he said.

“When we get older and have other responsibilities and duties, we can’t be quitting our jobs for a project that could easily evaporate in a year or two.”

On the web: Watch a video of how it works at www.jintronix.com

jheinrich@montrealgazette.com

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