The challenges we face often turn out to be important lessons that keep us grounded. For entrepreneur Subhasis Banerji, a car accident in 1998 changed his life forever.
“On 31 August 1998, I was traveling to Pune from Mumbai and I got into an accident that left me with physical and cognitive disabilities. I was only 34 then. I had to use crutches and could pay attention to things only for a few minutes as I had short-term memory loss,” recalls the 56- year-old Singapore-based entrepreneur.
In two years, Subhasis made a remarkable recovery. His own experience made him realise that there wasn’t any technology to help people with paralytic, cognitive or mobility issues.
Innovation from personal experience
“I was trained as a production engineer but I had no background in Biomedical engineering. But I began thinking if there was a technological tool to restore mobility. Hence, I decided to pursue a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore,” informs Subhasis. He was 43 when he joined the programme in June 2007.
After completing his course, he came up with SynPhNe, a wearable device that trains the brain and muscles. It can be used to help individuals with physical disabilities gain functional independence after stroke, injury, or loss of mobility due to aging.
The device was developed in 2014 and the startup was constituted by the same name, headquartered in Singapore. Subhasis co-founded it with John Heng, his professor of Design and Mechatronics at NTU
The device has two parts, one which needs to be placed on the head, while the other is to be worn on the arm. The wearer can go about their activities as the sensors inform the user (and their caregiver) about which parts of the muscles and brain are not functioning properly. This information is visible on a computer which points out corrective exercises.
Clinical trials helped over 100 patients who made progress in terms of mobility.
In 2018, the startup sold its device to Jurong Community Hospital in Singapore for stroke patients in their treatment. The startup also opened its training centre in Singapore for people with long-term disabilities.
In July 2019, SynPhNe opened its treatment centre in Mumbai, called SynPhNe CARE, to treat patients using this technology. This solution has also been used by four hospitals in Mumbai, while patients from Hyderabad and Delhi are being referred to SynPhNe’s clinic in Mumbai. Overall, they have helped 250 patients with advanced disabilities to function effectively without assistance.
“The idea behind this innovation was that one should not dependent entirely on therapists for their daily treatment when the therapist-to-patient ratio is already so low,” he emphasises.
The Singapore-based entrepreneur shares his journey of recovery, setting foot in a new country, the challenges on the way, and how he ultimately set up his venture with the technology he developed.
From Mumbai to Singapore
Developing technology was not an alien concept for Subhasis and as he had spent years providing technological solutions.
Born in Lucknow, his family moved to Mumbai where he was raised. He completed his Bachelor’s in Production Engineering in 1987 from Kolhapur Institute of Technology under Shivaji University.
He worked in production roles with two companies — Metal Box and Grindwell Norton. In August 1989, he joined Boncon Engineers, a design consultancy firm started by his father in the mid-1980s. They designed machines that fulfilled production processes for companies in the beverage, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors.
“We were making high-speed machinery that facilitated automation for various industries, which became my area of interest. I was always a problem solver and this experience helped me get better at it. I would be traveling almost 15-20 days a month for work,” informs Subhasis.
He took over the reigns of his company after his father retired. But, post the accident in 1998, things changed.
After many months of rehabilitation and unable to become fully mobile, Subhasis dug into the techniques of martial arts and yoga, which he had trained in since an early age. He was a Black Belt in karate at that time. These helped manage his pain, improve his attention span and achieve ease of movement.
By early 2000, he did not need any crutches. He realised the body’s capacity to heal when given the right inputs.
During this period, his family consultancy firm, Boncon shut down. After completing a few certificate courses on strength and fitness training, Subhasis started working as a Bodyworks therapist at Ultra Health Holistic Centre in Mumbai. The therapy clinic was for people with psychological and physical dysfunctions. At this point, he began looking for solutions to address these problems.
On applying and getting through NTU for biomedical engineering, he pooled all his savings to pursue the course. The idea was to gain knowledge and build something to help people with significant mobility issues.
“At the time, my cognitive issues had not subsided. It was difficult for me to remember things and grasp concepts. But I put in all the hours and worked hard. Since I also had work experience, I could finish the course in a year,” says Subhasis.
He then worked at a medical school for two years, researching the loss of function in relation to geriatrics. In 2009, he embarked on his PhD which focused on brain and muscle function.
Gaining expertise to develop tech
From 2009-2014, Subhasis had the “toughest five years of my life”. Those five years, he worked round the clock and began actual work on SynPhNe. In fact, this period laid the foundation for SynPhNe. Subhasis wrote several research papers along with his co-founder. This helped him achieve grants that funded his research, thus enabling him to fine-tune his innovation.
His research got a grant of S$200,000 from the National medical research Council in Singapore, followed by two others from the National Research Foundation and Singapore-MIT Alliance for S$250,000 each. With these funds, his team was able to convert a large prototype with two computer screens into a miniature one that could be worn on the body.
“The idea was to cater to individuals who had advanced long-term functional disabilities. John and the team never gave up on this objective; we worked tirelessly to develop the best prototype,” he informs.
Although he went to Singapore to study, his motivation was always to return to India to solve the problems here. He ultimately did that by opening a clinic and starting operations here, but the parent company is based in Singapore.
“One of the prime reasons I stuck here in Singapore is that there is an ecosystem where research and technology can be further developed. The climate of research funding in India in those years was not as great as it is in Singapore. With the grants here, we were able to make new discoveries and improvements every day. This is also why the technology could see the light of day,” he says.
SynPhNe first opened its CARE Centre to treat patients and demonstrate the value of the device.
For a month of daily sessions at home, they charge about Rs 25,000, while each individual session at the clinic is priced at Rs 1,250. Under the rental scheme, patients can have two sessions a day, thus increasing their chances of recovery significantly while reducing cost per session by over 50 per cent. A purchase option for those needing the device over longer periods has recently been launched to help them manage costs better.
Significant improvement in patients
Mumbai-based Beena Fernandes and her husband Arun Fernandes were holidaying in Goa in mid-2019 when Beena suffered a stroke. This left her paralysed; and after eight days in the ICU and 22 days in the hospital, she was airlifted to Mumbai. Arun started researching technology that could help his wife when he came across SynPhNe.
“The reason it grabbed my attention was that it was different from the traditional therapy solutions. At the time, my wife was completely paralysed. She could not speak and was barely able to open her eyes. Her right side had some movement but she had no control over her bodily functions. She was even being fed with the help of a tube,” says the 57-year-old advertising professional.
Beena’s treatment began in November, with an employee from SynPhNe visiting their home with the device. Since November, there have been 120 sessions for Beena, each lasting an hour.
“There has been a 70 per cent improvement in her condition. She is off the feeding tube, can talk and walk. Her left hand is about 60 per cent more functional than before,” says Arun, happily.
He now hopes that she can become self-sufficient and perhaps even return to her baking business.
“When I looked at their website and the demonstration, I realised that it could work well. The tech is so accurate in pointing out the correct use of the muscle and the exercises to follow. This makes it much better than conventional therapy because the analysis and course correction happens in real-time. People should be able to accept new technologies as an intervention,” he says.
Since most places are under lockdown owing to the pandemic, SynPhNe has started providing virtual therapy sessions without the device.
Ketan Mamania is a Chartered Accountant from Mumbai who survived a brain stroke four years ago. Since then, he has had difficulties in moving the fingers of his right hand. He visited SynPhNe’s clinic last year but hasn’t been able to go back to the clinic.
Hence, he has been taking online therapy sessions twice every day.
“The sessions have been really helpful. I also had difficulties with the movement of my elbow, shoulder, and waist, in addition to my fingers. But, these exercises are really helping me,” he says.
Dr Apoorva Ambolkar joined SynPhNe’s clinic early last year as a Neuro Physiotherapist. In seven months, she worked with at least six patients and took about three sessions every week.
“There was a patient who had experienced a stroke and was unable to move his right hand. Despite physiotherapy, there was no improvement,” states the 26-year-old from Mumbai.
After sessions for two months, he could move his fingers as well as grasp a bottle or a glass, a goal he had set for himself.
“The best part about the device is that it provides real-time analysis on which muscle one needs to work on to improve mobility. The patient is also an active participant in the process and sets their own goals. A report is provided to them at the end of every session is a source of positive reinforcement,” she emphasises.
Challenges, learnings & what he misses about India
Although Subhasis is a successful researcher and entrepreneur who has delivered results, there have been several roadblocks on his way.
“I was self-funding for my course in Singapore and had to work a demanding full-time job while doing PhD, spending late nights and weekends building SynPhNe. Additionally, it was difficult for me to grasp things because I wasn’t performing my best cognitively, but I really worked hard,” he says.
Another challenge is the skepticism in using new technology.
“Convincing people that patients with disabilities can heal themselves with the right tools is difficult. For example, there was a man who couldn’t play the guitar for 15 years after two strokes in 2008 and 2009. But after nine months of therapy, he could perform on stage. Hence, the proof is in the pudding,” he smiles.
Subhasis also shares his learnings with us.
- Learn and Unlearn: When you go to a new country, there are a lot of things that you will have to learn. You might be used to different rules but when you come to a new country, you must adapt.
- Work multiple jobs: Studying abroad can be financially draining so always be open to working hard and working multiple jobs to support yourself.
- Get a PhD: When working on medical tech innovation, you need rigorous academic and clinical research to show its viability and gain some grants to fund that research.
- Be passionate: Subhasis’ innovation stemmed from his experience, and hence, he was passionate about it. Always believe in what you are trying to deliver.
While adapting to Singapore, there is a lot that Subhasis misses about India. He would initially visit every two months to see his octogenarian parents, but due to the pandemic, that hasn’t been possible.
“As you know, the country has a strong sense of community and my neighbours have been really helpful at this time. I also miss travelling around the country and the food. The list of things you miss gets longer when you live outside,” he smiles.
Although bootstrapped initially, the startup now has angel investors who have invested about S$ 5 million. In the future, they are looking for an additional S$ 6 million in funding to make their technology even better. Other than that, Subhasis is also looking to collaborate with doctors in India willing to embrace this new technology.
Additionally, they are also looking at research on SynPhNe as a solution for people with early onset of Parkinson’s and catering to children with motor and learning disabilities.
“Families are usually disempowered when it comes to providing care for their loved ones who have neurological issues. With the wave of chronic disabilities in the world, we need to empower people by harnessing technology. I hope SynPhNe becomes the solution that comes to mind for anyone facing mobility or cognitive issues across the world,” he says, signing off.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)