Ready, steady, PhysiGo!
As someone who has sustained their fair share of sporting injuries over the years, I certainly could have done with the Running Pod Pro (RPP) wearable device from PhysiGo, which has the ability to analyse my run and provide actionable insights to improve running form, and crucially, prevent injury. We caught up with CEO and Co-founder, Luke Stephen-Perrett to find out more.
Launching the company in 2018, Luke’s initial vision for PhysiGo was centred around the physiotherapy market (clue’s in the title right)? However, like many startups before them, and following research with fellow co-founder, Matthew Baker, PhysiGo discovered some considerable barriers to entry in that market.
Undeterred, Luke quickly realised that the R&D principles that the company had employed in physiotherapy could also be applied to the biomechanical understanding of sport. “The regulation and certification to enter the physiotherapy marketplace was going to cost millions and take a lot of time,” Luke commented. “And the more we looked at trying to incorporate our solutions into the NHS, the more barriers we encountered.
“It’s still part of our five-year plan, but it just made better business sense at the time to tweak our priorities slightly. The healthcare system is a very difficult market currently, especially with COVID, so we decided to focus on how we could improve health and wellbeing in other ways.”
The RPP, due for release by the end of the year, is a running wearable device worn just above both ankles. In addition to the normal pace, altitude, step count etc., of a sports wearables, it measures contact time (the time your foot is in contact with the ground), flight time (the time between strides) and tibial load (the force applied to the foot during running) up to an enormous 200g.
These are important quantities in optimising performance. The RPP can report on every foot placement from heel to toe and also side-to-side (pronation and supination), and look for asymmetries to improve running form and aide recovery from injury.
In addition, PhysiGo has also developed the Running Pod Elite (RPE) in collaboration with British Athletics, who adopted the wearable last year to enhance the ability to monitor and analyse advanced performance metrics in real-time. “The RPE is a more detailed version of the consumer product (RPP). British Athletics were looking at ways of getting lab quality measurements in the field, and through our research we found that when a runner was aware they were being measured, it would influence the way they would run, and so decisions were being made with inaccurate data,” Luke added.
The RPE was deployed with the track team, including the relay squad, and is also being used by pole vaulter Holy Bradshaw. Tommy Yule, Head of Performance Support at British Athletics, said: “We are very pleased to be working with PhysiGo, who share our vision for data-driven performance improvement. PhysiGo has shown a capability to combine product innovation and flexibility with meeting the exacting standards of elite performance athletes.”
Luke explained that there was some convincing to do at the start and some coaches kicked back against the idea. However, he explained: “Once we got them on board and they realised that we were adding to their capabilities, and not trying to undermine their experience, they took to it quite quickly and could see the value.”
As an example, British Athletics currently use a very expensive piece of equipment placed at the side of the running track, that athletes would run through and, using lasers, can measure where a runner’s feet were landing etc. However, again, it was found that once an athlete entered the piece of equipment, unconsciously and suddenly their running gait, and the way they held their body changed, because they knew they were being monitored.
“That was basically their gold standard measurement,” Luke added. “And that was the data that coaches were using. We were able to convince them that by putting on our ankle-based wearables, an athlete could be monitored constantly, and without these artificial and false results.”
Luke explained that the RPE is being used as both a performance enhancing and injury prediction and prevention tool. The main focus is around how a person is running, and where improvements can be made, which then leads to better performances. Hand-in-hand with that, if an athlete has the correct form then the chance of injury reduces significantly.
Anyone vaguely active will know full well that the sports market is flooded with apps and wearables to enhance performance, increased health and prevent injury. So, what sets PhysiGo apart from the crowd?
“Our biggest differentiator is our training plans, which are accessible via the PhysiGo App,” Luke added. “When a person first gets the RPP, they log into the App and fill in a few details on what type of runner they are, their goals etc. Our AI is embedded in the hardware itself and linked to the App so it’s constantly monitoring and adjusting training plans depending on how the runner is performing in real time.
“The runner may say that their main aim is to run faster. In order to achieve that, you need to reduce your contact time and increase your flight time. And the only way to do that is by correcting your form. So, the user will get real-time feedback as well as feedback after the run, on what they need to do to improve form and therefore performance.
“Rather than just having blanket goals, and just having boundaries within which certain points are hit, it’s all based uniquely on the individual - because what’s normal for one person is not normal for another and that’s where our AI really comes into its own.”
Luke explained that PhysiGo’s products have been designed to be modular. The idea being that if an application requires monitoring of some kind, PhysiGo can apply what they already have with a minor tweak of the software and/or hardware.
“Because it’s a modular solution it means we can simply repackage it for another application,” added Luke. “At the moment we are in discussions with a Premiership rugby team - using exactly the same technology as the RPE, but applied differently. It will be embedded within a scrum cap - the idea being that we can monitor head knocks, to see if there is any correlation or causation between concussions, and also give an indicator to the medical team if a concussion assessment is advisable.”
Far from purely focusing on the sporting world, PhysiGo are looking at other avenues in which their solution can be rolled-out, and have received interest from other industries such as mining for example - monitoring workers underground, making sure that their gas levels are safe enough, and that the individual miners are using their bodies correctly, and are not injuring themselves.
The company are also working with Cambridge University on a medical application called cranioplasty, which is where someone has to have part of their skull removed. This can lead to an issue called sunken skin flap syndrome, where the skin sinks and touches the brain causing problems for the patients.
“Alongside Cambridge University we have developed a cap that goes over where that gap is, so we can monitor things like movements, pressures etc,” explained Luke. “It’s a key ethos of our company - if we’re doing something, it has to be helping people. The mining application, for example, revolves around the miners’ safety - making sure the work environment is as safe as possible and what’s required of them is appropriate, because it can be a dangerous place to work. And if we can help improve the quality of their working life that is a benefit for us and is a key part of any business decision we make.”
The present and future
Like all companies, PhysiGo has felt the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, not least because the company witnessed its sales pipeline completely disappear over the course of a day or two. “We were scheduled for running events, the London Marathon etc, and would have been doing lots of promotions around the Tokyo Olympics. So, our sales plan went out of the window and we basically had to revaluate our approach to market.
“However, being completely honest, I think we were very lucky in the timing of COVID. We were about two or three weeks away from pulling the trigger on some extra manufacturing, which would have begun just after the start of lockdown. So, we were able to weather the storm - the Government scheme was a godsend for us and that made sure salaries were paid, and we didn’t have to worry about rent etc.”
PhysiGo’s main focus in the short term is the RPP, with further developments in the pipeline and metrics added, applying user feedback to refine the product and keep improving the offering.
“We’re also going to be looking at other sports verticals – rugby, triathlons, cycling, swimming,” Luke concluded. “With everything we’ve learned so far, and what we’ll be developing over the next few years, we should be in a position to create close to a full body wearable for physiotherapy and that’s our long-term plan. Obviously that will lead to some significant growth which is when we’ll be looking for further funding in the future. Our vision is to become the world leader in innovative AI-driven wearables which provide performance and wellbeing solutions to people in the sports, health and wearables markets.”