Richard Branson’s ‘one to watch’, 3D printed orthotics startup Andiamo, tells Techworld why the health tech landscape is so challenging, and how it plans to break into British private and public healthcare.

Andiamo is the creation of Naveed and Samiya Parvez, parents of Diamo, a disabled child with cerebral palsy.

Doctor iPad xray

Quadriplegic Diamo needed specialist body braces and endured difficult, uncomfortable fittings for orthotics that took so long to materialise, he had already grown out of them upon arrival. The process was distressing for both Diamo and his parents who were determined to find a better design method for healthcare equipment.

How Andiamo began

Following Diamo's death in 2012, Naveed and Samiya realised there was a gap in the market for tech-enabled orthotics. Inspired by a Wired article about a little girl who learnt to walk with a 3D printed exoskeleton, the couple began to explore 3D printing and scanning as an option. 

After a chance meeting at annual tech conference Monki Gras, Naveed and Samiya's idea captured the imagination of tech guru and RedMonk (a dev analyst house) cofounder James Governor, who agreed to create Andiamo's first prototype within a year.

Three years on and Andiamo is succesfully working with families to take 3D scans of children to create a biomechanical model based on the scan. Andiamo then designs a brace and prototypes a 3D printed orthotic quickly to fit the child, iterating quickly for modifications.

Andiamo's model is simple and cost effective, but finding funding has been challenging.  Institutions like the NHS is driven by product cost and short term solutions rather than projected savings, Naveed Parvez says.

Challenges with the NHS

While Andiamo is in discussions with the NHS, Parvez says, “currently all NHS decisions are cost driven, yet unfortunately they don't take into account the entire pathway cost. So the decision is about how much the product costs, rather than how much money could be saved by delivering a better service.”

There’s a strong business case. There are two million people using the NHS orthotics service and around 100 million people worldwide in need of an orthotic.  

Demand is increasing by four to six percent a year too, thanks to diabetes, obesity, and people surviving with long term conditions for longer.

Parvez adds: “Small Business Research Institute (an initiative from government-backed Innovate UK) is helping but the NHS is structurally opposed to risk and innovation. The gap between NHS employees and tech startups is far too wide right now.”

Necker Island

Samiya Parvez accepts Talent International's 'one to watch' award from Richard Branson

Soon Andiamo will be flying to Richard Branson’s famous Necker Island, where guests must obtain a personal invitation from the British businessman, or pay over the odds to spend a week in the British Virgin Islands. Naveed and Samiya secured an invitation after winning Talent International’s Talent Unleashed One to Watch 2016 award this month.

Visiting Necker Island is more than just a week in the sun. There, the startup will have access to some of the most influential names in the business world.

“The prize is validation of our vision from a group of judges who are disruptors in the true sense. Necker Island is a huge opportunity as we ramp up for funding in late 2016. Getting advice and criticism from people who have dreamt and delivered big is incredible preparation,” Parvez says.

Despite successes like exclusive invitations to spend time with one of the world’s most admired entrepreneurs; placing in Tech All Stars’ top twelve European startups as well as IBM’s startup awards, Andiamo has suffered several setbacks.

Obstacles to breaking into healthtech market

The culture around manufacturing healthcare instruments is a huge barrier for Andiamo, and startups trying to break into the market.

“Clinical training is a very technical discipline, however there is very little training in service design or thinking within healthcare. This limits the understanding about how to best take advantage of new tech that often doesn’t work well within public and private sector’s rigid structures,” says Parvez.

Further, Andiamo has experience a “severe dearth of empathy within healthcare at the higher levels of management.” This, combined with a lack of service design understanding, “ closes down their ability to innovate,” he adds.

A lack of funding isn't the issue.

The government is looking for health tech pioneers in an ongoing healthtech funding round and the NHS ran its own startups competition in July, yet the clear benefits innovative technology can have on people's lives are yet to be realised. 

“There is not a lack of funding but a lack of imagination. Risk capital is going to iterations of the same ideas with minor tweaks,”Parvez says.

Despite this, working in a challenging startup landscape has brought plenty of surprising benefits for the couple. - one being the generosity of the tech community.

“We've gotten huge amounts of support and pro bono work including people have gone on to join our team. We hadn't fully appreciated how big our vision was until we started to get people offering to work for us for free. It has been a huge privilege to have such talented people who have not just faith in us but willing to help us materially,” Parvez says.

The future for 3D printed orthotics

Andiamo hopes to fit a minimum of 15 families with at least one orthosis that should last three months. Then, it will eye up international expansion.

“Our mission is to solve this problem globally and to do that we have to attract the type of funders that are going to be with us for the long term.”

Tips for healthtech entrepreneurs

Parvez has a few tips for startups looking to break into the healthcare market.

He says, “there can be a gap between the rhetoric of corporate support and the reality. We've had incredible support from EMC who gave us our first scanner and funding for the family, however we’ve found mentoring to be a very mixed bag and there is a genuine danger that startups assume that because someone is a mentor that they're automatically right.

“There is a difficult and fine line between taking advice and being able to stand your ground when you know your business.”