Ulster University: Transforming patient care and outcomes
An exciting time for healthcare innovation
Chic director David Branagh: ‘Covid provides a compelling background to what we are doing in Chic.’
Tackling social inclusion among the elderly, motivating children to exercise more, and measuring the benefits of assistive mobility devices. These are just a few of the innovative healthcare research projects being supported by the Northern Ireland Connected Health Innovation Centre (Chic).
Based at Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus, Chic’s aim is to develop the research capacity of connected health companies in Northern Ireland. The centre brings together academics, researchers and innovators with cutting edge expertise to develop digital technologies that transform patient care and outcomes. Chic is working with more than 30 companies with a mission to drive economic growth through the development of digital healthcare solutions.
“Covid provides a compelling background to what we are doing in Chic,” says centre director David Branagh. “So many aspects of the pandemic are related to the work we are doing, from lateral flow tests for diagnostics to the other end of the spectrum looking at children’s health and wellness, and the mental health impacts on elderly people.”
Launched in 2013, the centre addresses a number of key areas. “We bring academic knowledge and innovation into the health sector and build capability in the industry. We encourage companies to do more R&D and we take knowledge out of academia and share it with industry.”
Some £8 million (€9.4 million) in funding has gone into 50 projects over the past eight years. “The nature of the projects is decided by companies,” Branagh explains. “We have a couple of calls for proposals each year. The companies propose a project, and we review it and put it through an approval process. The research is carried out primarily in the academic setting. We work with companies to help them develop the proposal and put together a project plan, but the companies should have some idea of commercial potential and route to market. The average project value is typically around €100,000 and takes about 12 months to complete.”
Companies generally make an in-kind contribution of time and internal resources worth 25 per cent of the project value.
The Healthy Kidz data analytics service to promote physical activity in children is one of the innovative projects supported by Chic. “Healthcare Analytics was founded by a couple of PE teachers and has been going for a number of years,” says Branagh. “They now have tens of thousands of users involved and have built up a fair bit of data. They are now looking at the data in more depth to provide interventions and nudges to motivate children and help parental awareness in relation to their children’s level of physical activity.”
Another company, Anaeko, is monitoring air quality for the self-management of respiratory conditions. “The company announced further investment of £1.5 million recently,” Branagh notes. “The project aims to develop and trial a technology solution for monitoring air quality for the self-management of respiratory conditions. The perceived air quality will be assessed against fixed sensor data.
“If people are out in the community and perceive air quality as good, bad or moderate, they don’t know how accurate that is. The project aims to get that information from perception and match it with sensor data, and use it to provide advice to people on when and where to exercise.”
Leckey is developing wireless data acquisition from assistive devices to determine their efficacy. Rehabilitative and assistive devices, such as mobility and postural aids, can restore or replace the loss of mobility caused by a disability. A high proportion (70 per cent) of interventions for children with cerebral palsy have low or inconclusive evidence supporting their effectiveness. The project applies state-of-the-art sensor technology, integrated within mobility and postural assistive devices to understand how data gathered within a paediatric population can be used to provide evidence for clinical practice.
Kraydel is looking to create a system which provides a powerful visual image of the health of someone’s social interactions and dynamically evolves that image in real time in response to the actions of friends and family. This system aims to help reduce loneliness in the rapidly growing elder population and promote better health and faster recovery from illness and treatment.
“This is a very interesting start-up in the area of healthy ageing,” says Branagh. “It uses a set-top box on a TV which provides a very easy-to-use interface to communicate with friends and family. It collects metrics on connectedness and social interactions and presents it as a score to carers, friends and family. It can also nudge people to increase contact if necessary. If a person has family dispersed around the globe, it can encourage members to get in contact. It also provides visualisations like flowering gardens to illustrate the extent of social connections.”
In another project, ProAxsis, the Belfast-based diagnostics company, is conducting a 12-month project focusing on the development of a quantitative lateral flow device designed to monitor the ongoing clinical status of patients with respiratory diseases such as bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“Lateral flow testing is one of the things no one had heard of before Covid,” says Branagh. “You add saliva, and the result is usually a couple of lines on a device like in a pregnancy test. A lot of Covid tests are lateral flow. These devices can allow testing to move out of the hospital to the GP surgery and into the home where people can do it for themselves. People are living longer, suffering from more complex diseases, and the cost of healthcare is rising. As a society we must deal with that. This is quite an exciting time. Things that were taking a long time have been accelerated by Covid.”