Portuguese start-up aims to revolutionize physical rehabilitation industry

LISBON (Reuters) - When Virgilio Bento’s brother had to go to Cuba 20 years ago to receive cheap physiotherapy as he recovered from a life-threatening car crash back home in Portugal, he did not know it would inspire an innovation.

Now, after developing technology that uses body sensors and artificial intelligence for his doctorate in electronic engineering, Bento aims to transform the way victims of strokes and accidents physically recover.

The Stroke Wearable Operative Rehabilitation Device (SWORD) provides an exercise program on a tablet computer, which gives instructions to a patient, whose movements are monitored by sensors strapped to the body.

Progress reports are sent through the cloud to a remote physiotherapist, who can alter the exercises by sending instructions back to the tablet for the patient to see.

“It’s not magic, it’s simple,” said Bento, explaining how his system could mark a sea change by dramatically reducing the cost of physical rehabilitation and making it affordable to millions.

“I saw first hand very vividly the challenges that my parents faced to provide intensive physical rehabilitation,” he said. “I thought to myself ‘ok this is a huge challenge that nobody is looking at, nobody is trying to solve, I will try to solve it’.”

The market place for medical technology is exploding, but few solutions have been designed to aid the intensive physiotherapy required for serious conditions like stroke. Alternatives, like robotics, are vastly more expensive.

“There aren’t enough therapists and the numbers (who need them) are only going to go up (as populations age),” said Tom Paprocki, managing director of the innovation and technology center at Direct Supply, America’s leading provider of equipment and services to senior homes. “This kind of technology will help bridge that gap.”

Paprocki has vetted 1,400 technology start-ups in the sector and says Bento’s system is in the top five.

Bento’s idea is simple -- to offer patients physical, interactive rehabilitation in the comfort of their own home by getting rid of the need for difficult and expensive visits to a physiotherapist at a clinic.

It has taken years to refine and adapt, relying on unique sensor technology and the latest advances in cloud computing. Initial results show 93 percent of patients improved their motor performance using the exercises provided by the system.

The yearly estimated cost of treating and caring for stroke survivors - where Bento has concentrated his research - is 30 billion euros ($32 billion) in Europe and 57 billion euros in the U.S., according to a report provided by Bento’s company to the European Commission.

Bento says his system, which gives patients immediate feedback and a score on the number of right and wrong movements they perform, will cost one tenth of physiotherapy.

“At the end of each exercise the results appear, how many times I did the movements, how many medals I won,” said Alvaro, 56, who has used the system after hip surgery. “There is virtual compensation if you do the exercises well, it’s kind of fun and ends up being a bit of a game as well.”

Bento won a development grant of 1 million euros from the European Union in 2014 under a program for technology models promising to “ultimately disrupt existing markets.”

He has raised 1 million euros from private investors and is now launching another financing round of 3 million euros as he rolls out SWORD in the U.S. market.

($1 = 0.9426 euros)

Reporting By Axel Bugge; Editing by Toby Davis