Company of the Month – Charco Neurotech
Lucy Jung and Floyd Pierres, co-founders of Charco Neurotech, didn’t set out to form a start-up med-tech company, but their enthusiasm for their product has led them to achieve an impressive amount in the short time since forming the company in the summer of 2019. While many have struggled to raise investment during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are set to close a fundraise of over £500k shortly, and are preparing to launch their first product – the CUE1 – next year.
A wearable device for Parkinson’s
The concept for the CUE1 began during Lucy’s Innovation Design Engineering Masters degree at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College. Her project looked at the impact focused stimulation can have in Parkinson’s therapy. Together with Floyd (who is currently also a doctor at North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust), she continued researching the topic and ultimately developed a prototype for the CUE1 – a small wearable device, designed to be worn on the sternum.
“Lots of people with Parkinson’s are really frustrated with their stiffness and slowness of their movement, as well as limitations to walking caused by freeze of gait. The concept of using vibration to reduce these symptoms has been around since Professor Jean-Martin Charcot looked at it in the 19th century. For our own research, we’ve been working really closely with people with Parkinson’s to look at what the secret is behind this, what the parameters of the vibration need to be, and the materials and mechanical structure we needed for an efficient and effective device.”
They have now patented their device, which works through focused stimulation (vibrations) and cueing (pulses of vibrations). The device also delivers medication reminders through distinct vibrations, and the accompanying app is used to track symptoms.
During their pilot testing, the team were able to observe up to a 32% improvement in one patient’s symptoms. Their latest trials are using the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS) to measure symptoms, and have shown a 9-point improvement in symptoms on this scale (therapies are usually seen as clinically significant at a 3- or 4-point difference.)
A steep learning curve
As a young team, Lucy puts the speed of their achievements so far largely down to enthusiasm and hard work, as well as a willingness to ask questions and learn from those with more experience in the industry. They have a number of advisors and mentors working with them and have sought out collaborators with experience in manufacturing and supply chain in particular.
“The ecosystem growing around start-ups in the UK is incredible, and there’s so much advice you can get. We’re a young team, but we’re guided by our advisors and that has been our accelerating factor”, explains Lucy.
To gain this network of expert advisors and collaborators, they have taken advantage of a number of development opportunities. Beginning with joining the Imperial White City incubator, where they met their non-executive director and mentor Govind Pindora, and later Cambridge Judge business school, whose coaches have continued to support them. After winning their patent grant, they joined the InnovationRCA incubator and also won the MedTechSuperConnector grant and joined their accelerator program. Most recently, the team has also joined KQ Labs at the Crick Institute.
Raising investment in a pandemic
The team’s hard work to build their network and enthusiasm for embracing opportunities have also stood them in good stead when it came to raising money this year. While many have frustratingly seen funding opportunities go cold during the pandemic, Charco’s latest fundraise has been over-subscribed. Originally aiming for £300-500k investment, they are closing with an impressive £545k.
Some of this investment has come from taking part in MedCity’s first virtual Investor Hub Meeting in May this year. Charco was one of five companies to pitch to over 70 potential investors at the company showcase. Two investors from the event went on to invest, including one who made a decision within an hour after the event. Lucy is keen to share the experience with others:
“I tell all fellow founders to get involved with MedCity and the investment events. What was brilliant was that we felt like we were speaking with real, serious investors. Outside of the investments that actually came through, there were others we spoke with that came close to investing, so it was really valuable in terms of the number of genuine, serious investors we met.”
Asked about the experience of pitching virtually for the first time, Lucy again shows how her willingness to be coached paid off:
“MedCity held preparation sessions beforehand, which were so helpful. Everything from the best positioning of your camera, to sharing your screen, to detailed feedback on the pitch. Those tips have stayed with me now, as we’ve continued to need to present and pitch online during the pandemic.”
The team is gearing up to launch the CUE1 in the UK and EU next year, and are currently leaning on their strong network and advisory team to help complete CE marking approvals, manufacturing plans and further trials.
While there is enough published scientific and clinical evidence for this therapy to be launched, the team is supporting two full clinical trials – one in South Korea and one in the UK. Although initial launch plans for 2021 are for the B2C market, they hope clinical trial evidence will help them reach more patients through the NHS in the future.
In fact, the product is designed for constant testing and potential to tweak therapies. The accompanying app features games that encourage users to measure their symptoms by testing their motor skills, all feeding into data that will allow Charco to measure the effectiveness of using the device.
Beyond the initial launch, the team hopes to expand to new territories, as well as exploring similar approaches to treating other conditions, such as stammering, multiple sclerosis and the effects of strokes.
Whilst the team are keen on thoroughly testing their product, Lucy also explains how eager she is for their product to be put to work, as we end on a poignant note about the challenges start-ups in med-tech face:
“As a tech startup, obviously fundraising and regulations are hard work. But for us, being honest, the hardest thing is people waiting for the device and not getting a chance to actually have it before passing away. We have trial participants who we’ve worked with that really want the device full time, and we built a waiting list of over 500 people in under two months via our website. So, it is the most difficult thing for us to have to say ‘We’re very sorry. We’re working on getting there as fast as possible’. And that is what is driving us to achieve it.”