On September 4, 2015 I had the pleasure of chatting with Faii Ong, founder of GyroGear. Faii’s name is pronounced “FI,” with a long “i” like in Wi-Fi. On behalf of Tremor Action Network (TAN) I asked and received permission to blog the Skype interview with Faii, in His Own Words.
TAN: GyroGear came to the public’s attention when it won the F Factor. Can you please tell me what the F Factor is?
Faii: The F Factor is the EU’s largest tech challenge. It is the headlining event at The Founders Forum, in turn described as the ‘Davos of the tech world.’ The Founders Forum is a gathering of the global tech elite, featuring attendees such as Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, and other leading lights including Richard Branson, and David Cameron. We still can’t believe how fortunate we were to have WON such a high-level competition in front of all these global leaders.
TAN: Did winning the F Factor find you any new backers?
Faii: I would say we made good contacts, friends and supporters at the F Factor. We are currently in the process of raising £200,000 to take us from our prototype to manufacturing. If anyone is willing to contribute, do get in touch!
TAN: Did anyone you met during the competition offer to help with subsidizing?
Faii: We have always been fortunate to have people approach us with that and to connect us with the right individuals, at the various events we’ve been to. In conjunction with the F Factor win, all this tremendous feedback from experienced, high-level individuals validates our product and business. F Factor provided further validation on a world-stage of the GyroGlove, especially with respect to its simplicity and the efficacy.
TAN: You are doing all of this while going to medical school, is that correct?
TAN: How do you balance medical school and running a tech startup company?
Faii: Put simply, I could not have done this without our fantastic team. GyroGear’s true resource is its exceptionally capable team. We have top engineers from the top engineering college outside America, brought together with a common cause, and drawing on our significant educational and cultural diversity. We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, industrial designers on board. We have people from medicine. It is this multi-disciplinary approach that provides a solid foundation for everyone to build upon. Our industrial designer brings on board world class design (as validated by his recent Red Dot award), our mechanical engineers contribute their experience from some of the most stringent graduate programmes (Rolls-Royce Graduate Leadership Programme), and I can draw on my work with some of the best biotech labs in the world (Boston). All this allows us to adapt effectively and rapidly to whatever complications we have and will face, whilst maintaining momentum.
TAN: Have you got your next step after medical school planned out?
Faii: If all goes well, I graduate this year from medical school here at Imperial College in Britain. I will be taking up offers for research out in Boston and applying for PhD programmes next year. I can’t disclose details right now, but it’s looking exceedingly exciting!
TAN: What do you want to do your PhD in?
Faii: On the scientific side, I am interested in regenerative medicine, and rebuilding the human body. I’ve been looking at transplantation of large, complex body parts, for example face and limb transplantations. GyroGear is similarly an extension of this push to rebuild the body and restore function. I served in the Singapore Armed Forces as a paramedic, training to stabilise people with significant injury. I too was in Boston several months after the unfortunate marathon bombing, and met in clinic those who suffered life-changing injuries. Current surgical options are insufficient in the face of extensive trauma. It’s a fascinating, yet life-changing, frontier I look to contributing concretely to.
TAN: Will you end up with a PhD and an MD with a specialization in some type of medicine?
Faii: Most countries in the world offer the MBBS, in contrast with the graduate MD of our American counterparts. Since you’ve asked, I will graduate with MBBS BSc (Hons). It’s the equivalent of a triple degree/major in the States. Growing up, I always thought having more than a degree or two was superfluous, and still do. But I now see the value behind it, as long as it’s purposeful, exciting, and not simply for the sake of career advancement. In fact, having too many qualifications is an impediment in many other industries. With regard to the conversion process, doctors have to first sit the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), as with American medical graduates, before applying for positions in the US. Those who have done so usually swap the ‘MBBS’ with the equivalent ‘MD.’ The intensity and length of the British degree, especially at Imperial College, ensures we have a robust and exceedingly patient-centred clinical foundation, even in comparison with US medical schools. Together with the better post-graduate training in the states, this would provide the best of both worlds – great for a life-time of helping people.
TAN: Where are you going to be studying in Boston?
Faii: My mentors are based at Harvard and MIT, so I will be looking in that locale. But far more importantly, food and cuisine in Boston, in my humble opinion, is head and shoulders above London!
TAN: What do you do with the other five minutes you have free in a day? What kind of hobbies do you have?
Faii: Hobbies . . . I used to have loads of hobbies. Well, I’m reading medicine, and not physics, unfortunately. As much as I’d love to, I can’t quite bend the rules of this universe. It’ll be great to have a parallel world I could take time out in! Other than working out at the gym (favourite workout – deadlifting), I try to fence. I used to fence competitively for my country. I love music so I do a bit of sound engineering, and my own amplifiers, speakers and that sort of paraphernalia. Helps me stay sane during long-revision sessions! And I attempt singing every so often in the bathroom.
TAN: When you first started this project it was because you had seen an elderly patient. Did a light bulb suddenly go off when you saw her? Did the idea come together immediately or did you start with, “I’ve got to do something?”
Faii: To be absolutely honest it was a simultaneous combination of the two. I like nit picking at things, at least in my mind. So there is definitely the urge to fix things, when I do come across them. It is a good habit which many doctors and engineers have – it is always useful to address things as expediently or as early as possible.
So when I happened across this lady, I simply couldn’t walk away when everyone else was ignoring her. Everything she was eating had gone down her front. Given her Alzheimer’s, and that she was 103 years old, it was difficult for her to even remember what she was doing at that very moment. In the half hour I spent cleaning helping her finish the rest of her food, there was enough time to go from “I wish I could have done something about this” to working out possible solutions in my mind.
So all of this went into a notebook. I keep my ideas on Evernote. These ideas usually happen at three or four in the morning, or when I’m in the shower. Shortly before founding GyroGear, I ranked all these ideas on a matrix, categorising them, for example, on each idea’s impact, the number of people who could benefit, and the feasibility of the idea. This very glove was what emerged at the top, and that’s how it all started.
TAN: Tremor Action Network noticed in the Parkinson’s Life article that you quoted “up to 200 million people globally have essential tremor.” Where did you find the population number?
Faii: The challenge with essential tremor is that it is not as well diagnosed, especially in the wider world, and thus presents with a far less defined populace than Parkinson’s. Scientific literature, and disease specific websites online, such as charities, and even our competitors (LiftWare) cite the ten to twenty times more prevalent incidence of essential tremor over Parkinson’s.
There was a paper by Louis and Ferreira (2015) that demonstrates the difficulties in defining the prevalence of essential tremor in a number of studies across the world. To us, all this highlights not just a large number of people we could help, but that there are potentially a large number of undiagnosed individuals who are not yet aware of available help.
Even at medical school, students are not specifically taught this condition. I was very surprised, when we first started GyroGear, that there are no disease-specific interventions for essential tremor – beta blockers and deep brain stimulation are carry-overs from other conditions. This is in spite of the severe impact, and widespread prevalence, of essential tremor.
Louis ED, Ferreira JJ. How common is the most common adult movement disorder? Update on the worldwide prevalence of essential tremor. Mov Disord. 2010 Apr 15;25(5):534-41.
TAN: Can you tell me why you decided on a device instead of working on a drug therapy or surgery?
Faii: The reason for working with external, mechanical devices is that implementations such as the GyroGlove are simpler, and more reliable. GyroGear’s focus is firmly set on benefiting our patients as best as we can – the tremor bravehearts we work with always emphasise how they could have used this device yesterday.
With this in mind, I could have applied myself to developing more invasive devices, novel antibodies and other more elaborate technology. However, such therapies take ages to reach the market, with at least ten to fifteen years for antibodies and pharmaceuticals. I will focus on those approaches during graduate school. Thus, developing experience in an array of varied technologies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, is exceedingly useful for helping my future patients and those around me.
The GyroGlove thus addresses the gap between conventional pharmaceuticals, with side effects and eventual loss of therapies, and invasive, deep brain stimulation. We envision the GyroGlove complementing current therapy whilst providing just as much contribution to quality of life.
TAN: Are you working with anyone in the USA? Are you going to apply for a U.S. patent? Are you working with anyone in the U.S. to see if you can qualify for private and public sources of funding?
Faii: With respect to intellectual property, we have filed a core patent, and will be filing additional ones as we develop the product further. The Patent Cooperation Treaty covers protection in America and 147 other member nations. We are not yet working with any partners in the States, but would be looking to, especially organisations doing good work, including the Tremor Action Network. We do intend to move out to Boston when the time comes. The UK will always be our home, and definitely our EU headquarters. Here in the UK, we have the world’s largest public health system – it is great for meeting our potential users, doctors, charities and other stakeholders thus allowing an integrated approach for developing the GyroGlove. We are working with doctors, hospital trusts, charities and the Clinical Innovations Director for the NHS in bringing the GyroGlove to market. America remains attractive with respect to later stage fund raising. We will hasten, but never hurry.
TAN: Are you getting support from The National Tremor Foundation in the UK and or other organizations in the United Kingdom?
Faii: We are currently working with Cure Parkinson’s, Parkinson’s UK and the South London Young Parkinson’s Network. We are most definitely reaching out, even as we speak.
TAN: Do you have to go through a clinical trial in the UK? Is GyroGlove considered a medical device that would need a clinical trial?
Faii: Ideally, the GyroGlove will be a lifestyle device, with minimal regulation required, which could further delay release to those who need it. Even if it were classified as a class one medical device there is little additional regulation, such as CE Marking in the EU. We will definitely conduct our own patient testing, with an aim to publish the results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Our focus is to ensure we have the safest, most reliable and effective product possible.
TAN: Do you have people testing GyroGear at this time?
Faii: We have a couple of very close supporters with tremor. We are working with them with respect to development and testing. This allows the team to develop the GyroGlove in sync with user needs and requirements. Such an approach provides a far more effective product, whilst allowing us to more optimally deploy our time and money in development.
We have just done a focus group with about forty people. Once the GyroGlove is ready for formal testing, we will do so with at least fifty patients.
TAN: Have you found anyone who is willing to be a public face for you to help get the word out there when you are ready?
Faii: We have several individuals who will be more than happy to do so. We cannot thank them enough for their courage and for their support. It’s all the more reason for us to keep at getting the GyroGlove onto people’s hands as best as we can. At the same, we’re always keeping a lookout for notable public champions. Who knows, the gyroscope technology might just be of help to Michael J Fox or Muhammad Ali! Again, no matter who the user is, GyroGear has to remain laser focused on providing effective technology, building it to the best possible standards, as that is what people need. We aim to provide as much value and restoration of quality of life as possible.
TAN: Please tell me about the design of the device.
Faii: Our award winning concept is inspired by cutting edge aerospace technology. The GyroGlove couples spinning discs (gyroscopes) to the hand. These gyroscopes instantaneously and proportionally stabilise hand tremors.
It feels as if one’s hand is moving in thick treacle – allowing smooth motion, yet resisting fine tremors.
Great for writing, eating, making coffee and far more. The GyroGlove is currently patent pending.
TAN Blog Editor