BackHug: giving consumers control to treat their back pain

If you’ve ever had backpain, you know its no fun. Social occasions, exercise, work, the shadow of back pain hangs over all of them. But not only is the fear of a flare-up real, but should one occur, then the costs, both physical and material, can be devastating. In the UK, reports highlight how lower back pain costs the country’s National Health Service nearly £5 billion annually from GP appointments alone.

This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe

Yet medication, physiotherapy, and in extreme cases, surgery are the only options available. But aside from being expensive and time-consuming, they can even be risky. This means that back pain isn’t just the issue of the pain itself, but all the associated challenges of treating it. Enter BackHug.

BackHug is, as it implies, a device focused on your back. Unlike that home massage pad you probably got for Christmas that one year, Backhug is the first device designed to loosen stiff joints in your back - which are the root cause of most aches and pains you experience throughout your body.


The journey from the beginning to now was a long time in the making. Yet, health has played a part from the start for Founder and CEO Chongsu Lee. “From the age of 10, I had spent more than 10 years in and out of hospital due to serious health issues in my stomach and pancreas,” Lee told Startups Magazine. “I went on to study engineering in Seoul and then started working for Hyundai as a troubleshooting engineer, but my childhood illness instilled a fascination in me with the human body and how to keep it healthy, particularly with massage. So, I quit the engineering job in 2006 and left for Edinburgh to study physiotherapy.”

Following his studies, he began working in his physio clinic. Then, in 2013, a realisation about a group of his clients sparked the trail that would lead him to found BackHug. “I was busy in my physio clinic treating patients with a long list of ailments, including sore backs, headaches, sciatica, tennis elbow; golfer's elbow, tight hamstrings, calf issues, Achilles Tendinitis, the list goes on,” said Lee. “What I noticed was that, in nearly every case, the key to solving their pain lay in loosening stiff joints in the back. It worked incredibly well, but it was too physically demanding. It was so exhausting and painful for me that I just couldn’t carry on that way, but I wanted to keep treating people who were in pain.”

This led Lee to formulate a machine that could give this deep pressure, and in 2015, the concept for BackHug was born. It then took two years to get the first version ready, but it would not be until 2023, six years after that and 2,000 changes to the product later, the idea finally materialised into the startup we see today.


BackHug is a robot back therapist that you can control with a smartphone app, promising to give you professional-level back therapy right in the comfort of your home or workplace. Unlike other home massage devices, that target muscles, this device comes with 26 humansized robotic fingers that target the stiff joints in your back, neck, and shoulders, something Lee says is the root cause of most pain and discomfort. All backs are different and, whenever you get treatment on BackHug, the fingers rise and adapt to the unique shape of your back to tailor treatment to your individual back shape.

This adaptation means software plays an even more critical role. Users complete a chatbot physio consultation whenever they create their account on the BackHug App, answering a series of physio questions about their ailments, lifestyle and treatment preferences. At the end of the consultation, the App creates a personalised treatment programme for them, specifically tailored to their needs. The App also records their use of BackHug, like how often they use it and what programs they use. The ‘Back Tension Tracking’ technology measures how much your back tension has changed in each of the six back areas objectively and displays the outcome after each session. All these elements feed into the AI algorithms to continuously adjust the personalised treatment programme it delivers.

This combination of software and hardware has tangible results: BackHug User Trials Survey reported a 51% reduction in back pain on average for users. Yet, despite the impressive results, “BackHug definitely complements physiotherapy, it doesn’t replace it,” says Lee. Yet what it can do is reduce the pain experienced in between visits, sort of like a top-up, and even reduce the frequency of visits.


Currently, BackHug is available for purchase or subscription rental, a less common way of selling products. This is because “a large part of the value customers are paying for is the sophisticated software system we built. Without the software, BackHug wouldn’t work,” says Lee.

In addition to this idiosyncrasy, BackHug is also unique in the sense that their market is both B2C and B2B. This opens up a huge potential for the startup seeing as back pain is one of the main reasons for staff absence at work. “Employers are spending huge sums of money to tackle the widespread back pain issues among their employees,” Lee explained. “This is the reason why our B2B customers like Royal London, Scor Reinsurance, Convex and Abrdn have placed BackHugs in their offices.”

From its protracted product development, to now having a team 15, BackHug’s future is bright. Their growth strategy now is to focus on commercialisation in the US in 2024. This comes as the company readied two dozen BackHug units to ship to the US in October of this year. From then, the Far East, “where 15% of households buy massage chairs and beds,” Lee informs. But that is still away from now, and the outline of that expansion will become clearer later, he explains.

Yet what is already evidently clear is the potential returns ready for a device like BackHug. “The market has been shouting for a solution for effective back care for a long time, and the growing back problems are due to the fact we spend more time sitting down at the desk, we live longer, and when we get older, our body gets stiffer,” Lee asserts. “The general public and employers alike are increasingly making health and wellbeing a priority, and therefore we estimate that the market is worth $76 billion annually for us. That’s why there have been significant investments in several companies in the past few years, especially in the US, such as Aescape.”

Back pain may be a fact of life, but if the blossoming startup that is BackHug continues to gain pace, then suffers may soon have an easier solution to dealing with it.