Drawing a continuous spiral on a piece of paper is an effortless task for most people. For Sue Whitehouse, however, this was simply impossible; she suffers from essential tremor, a condition which causes uncontrollable trembling in her hands. Imagine her elation when she could finally perform the spiral test and, once again, carry out basic activities like pouring water into a cup – all thanks to a glove-like device called the GyroGlove. “These are gonna enable me to keep more of my independence,” said a teary-eyed Whitehouse as she looked at the GyroGloves on her hands, “instead of losing it day by day.”
The GyroGlove is a new medical wearable that will soon hit the market. The device, which was developed by UK-based startup GyroGear, positions an aerospace-grade gyroscope on the back of the hand to directly modulate tremors and steady its user’s hand immediately. While testing the GyroGlove, Whitehouse was able to paint her nails and perform cross stitching for the first time in years.
Worldwide, up to 200 million Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and essential tremor (ET) patients suffer from hand tremors like Whitehouse. Unfortunately, current interventions offer limited efficacy and come with various drawbacks. The GyroGlove is thus a gamechanger as it instantly restores functioning across myriad activities including eating, writing, using a smartphone, and even playing the guitar.
After a long R&D period and extensive clinical trials, the GyroGlove is finally on the cusp of commercialisation, with the first order set to be fulfilled this month. We speak to GyroGear’s founder and CEO Dr Faii Ong on his experiences so far, from why he founded the startup to how he secured a partnership with Foxconn, the world’s largest technology manufacturer.
What made you decide to start GyroGear?
I was working at Imperial College London, and we were looking after this 103-year-old lady who was getting very, very thin. We had initially thought that it was an undetected disease – perhaps cancer, a metabolic issue, or something else entirely. It turned out that she had not been eating because she had hand tremor and couldn’t feed herself. The irony was that this lady was being cared for by the gastroenterology team! (laughs)
This was the problem that I saw with regard to tremor. I’ve been very fortunate to work in labs in Boston where I was exposed to bioengineering, then in the UK where I received training on the clinical side of things. Put those together, and this was what came out.
It’s quite a leap though, to go from having an idea to actually developing and commercialising it.
I think you need to be very, very clear about exactly why you're here in this world, and what you want to do with this life. When I was much younger, my parents brought me to India on various humanitarian trips. I’ve been to the country about 60 times, and when you’re sitting in your jeep, looking out at a guy who can’t walk because he has polio, you realise that if there’s a way to reach out and help, every little bit is worth it. That’s our way of thinking here – we have a duty to accomplish this, and make sure that it’s properly done to help the people with this condition.
You’ve mentioned previously that you explored over 40 different potential solutions to hand tremor before settling on using a gyroscope, which was eventually developed into the GyroGlove. What set this solution apart?
We considered everything from simple rubber bands, all the way to regenerative medicine and stem cell treatments. Some simply didn’t work. Others would take too long – getting a cell therapy out to market, for example, is going to take $2 billion, 20 years, and a lot of luck. A few were nearly impossible to scale up to reach more patients.
A glove-based wearable device, on the other hand, was something that could make an immediate difference and be scaled up over a long period of time in terms of both reach and functionality. If we can help a significant group of tremor patients, hopefully over their entire lives, then we’d have accomplished something.
One of your strategic partners is Foxconn. Apart from being a key investor, the company is also involved in the GyroGlove’s R&D, as well as the production of its hardware. Now, Foxconn is the world’s largest technology manufacturer, while GyroGear is just a startup. How did you bring them to the table, and convince them to work with you?
Let me just preface this by saying that the team at Foxconn has been extremely supportive. I’ve never seen any large manufacturer, let alone the world’s largest, print just 10 circuit boards for a customer like us. It’s unheard of!
Coming back to your question, I think the most important thing as a small company is that you have to know your stuff. You need to develop something that is substantial, actually works, and can deliver the necessary high impact. If you fudge any details or fluff something up, it will be detected very, very quickly. Of course, I think Foxconn has been very kind to at least consider what we were offering. They know that we are trying our best to develop something for the world, and decided to support us subsequently with a partnership founded on trust and mutual respect.
What do you think has surprised you the most since founding GyroGear?
You know, for a startup like this you need to first make sure that you have the right motivations. If you deliver value based on these motivations and take good care of people, then everything else seems to just sort itself out. I know that this sounds odd coming from a scientist and an engineer, but good things do come when you have the right mindset that you’re doing this to help people. There will always be bumps along the way, but the cards will just somehow fall the way you need them to, like how VentureBlick came in to help us with our funding needs.
Where is GyroGear right now, and how do you answer your investors’ perennial questions about returns and exit?
We are currently getting ready to ship our first units out. That should happen in just a couple of weeks, so it’s another milestone reached, this time in terms of commercialisation. We’re pursuing FDA approval concurrently, and expecting clearance by the third quarter of this year.
As for returns, our conservative estimates put 38,000 units sold in Year 5 for US$192 million in revenue and, correspondingly, a US$103 million EBITDA. In terms of an exit, our analogues in the industry are doing so at between 12 to 25 times of EBIDTA. A billion-dollar valuation for GyroGear at exit is definitely possible if all goes well, whether through a trade sale or an IPO. That is what our investors can look forward to in terms of returns.