As you turn off the motorway and swing around the roundabout into Eindhoven’s High Tech Campus, there’s an eye-catching sign proclaiming this to be the smartest square kilometre in the Netherlands. Quite a boast, but perhaps one that’s without merit.
For a hundred years or more, this city in the southern part of the Netherlands was dominated by one company. Philips, which also lent its name to Eindhoven’s wildly successful football team, PSV, is just about the best-known export to come out of the country. Founded in 1891, it has a long and successful history in innovative technology – it’s creations include the compact cassette, a mainstay of music and even computing for those of us born in the 1980s and earlier.
Things, however, are changing. In truth, they have been for a while. Eindhoven is now a genuine centre of innovation not just within Philips, which still has a large presence here despite moving its headquarters to Amsterdam, but also across dozens of other tech companies, big and small.
They are concentrated in the High Tech Campus, a series of buildings set on a flat landscape around a small lake teeming with ducks, with the motorway almost adjacent. The complex – formerly a Philips R&D facility called NetLab – is now home to 8,000 people working at more than 100 companies including Intel, Texas Instruments and IBM as well as many tech startups.
The campus also hosts the Eindhoven node of EIT ICT Labs, an EU-funded platform for bringing together research, education and innovation. EIT has been running the Idea Challenge with the aim of supporting the next generation of tech companies in Europe, and the contest is spread across eight topic areas centred on eight cities. This week, the first of those eight – health and wellbeing – held its final in Eindhoven to see which of the eight finalists would walk away with the prizes.
With the sun shining and the ideas flowing, it provided an insight into different innovation cultures, different approaches to business, and the different backgrounds of those wanting to create something new. Each of the eight startups pitched in front of a jury of experts from within EIT and from industry, and there were plenty of nerves among the pitchers, many of whom were doing it for the first time.
Eindhoven is a hotbed of innovation in the health and wellbeing sector, and as such made a natural choice for the H&WB part of the Idea Challenge. So which of the 113 applicants made it to the final?
In the order of pitching we have:
Kemuri is British company which has created a prototype device filled with sensors to monitor various different factors in the kitchen of a vulnerable old person living alone. What if they are not eating or drinking enough, or they are not warm enough, or they get into serious physical trouble?
“Some fall and lay there for hours unable to catch anyone’s attention,” said Dr. Leonard Anderson, founder of Kemuri, in his pitch to the Idea Challenge judges. “Some lay there for days; some die.”
It’s a serious issue in a society where there are increasing numbers of old people. Kemuri’s solution is a device which sends information once a minute – it checks whether the home has power (for heating), whether it has detected any motion, and sends it via a sim card to a piece of learning software which can eventually predict the behaviour of the subject.
In this way, it can predict the values its sensors will detect every hour, and if they do not fit within the parameters, then it can highlight them. And, as it turns out, the kitchen is the best place to monitor someone.
State healthcare providers in the UK in particular are interested in the solution – by ensuring the elderly can continue living in their own accommodation for longer, they can save up more than €20,000 per year per person. It also gives the families more peace of mind and better social interaction with their loved ones.
And, let’s not forget, it allows the elderly to live longer, safer and happier.
Are you sitting comfortably? No? Then we’ll begin. Eight in ten people will experience bad posture – especially those who sit in front of computer all day (which is probably most of you). Back pain is the number one reason for having time off work, and the number two reason for a visit to the doctor.
The problem is that it’s hard to keep track of your posture; you tend to slouch subconsciously. The way to solve this, according to Swedish company Posetrack, is to wear technology which can alert you when your posture is off.
The solution the Posetrack team have come up with is a band fitted with sensors, which can measure the position and bend of your spine before transmitting the data over bluetooth to your phone, which can then analyse it. These flex sensors measure the degree of bend across your whole spinal column.
The team hope to take advantage of the boom in wearable technology, although the challenge of how you would persuade people to wear these large vests must be overcome – maybe people who already experience back pain might don them, but normal people sitting at their desks is another matter.
The man giving the presentation, the brilliantly-monikered Xavier Bonjour, described the goal of 3D Sound Labs as building the “Holy Grail of hearing technology” by solving the so-called cocktail party problem. With current hearing aids, even high-end ones, the hearing impaired still struggle to understand conversation at dinners or parties in the same way they can in one-to-one situations. With ten percent of the population in OECD countries having some kind of hearing problem, this is an issue which is only going to get bigger.
The solution according to 3D Sound Labs, then, is a microphone which can be put on a table and which captures richer, 3D sound. It sends a feed to the hearing aid which, using a binaural rendering engine, can recreate a more natural 3D sound from which the user’s brain can more easily extract speech from the background noise.
In effect, Xavier said, it is doing for the ears what Oculus Rift is doing for the eyes – although there were doubts over whether having a separate microphone which you always have to put on a table is workable, as well as whether the focus on this particular projet would be sharp enough in a company which is also pursuing other products.
Horus has created a small voice-activated device which can be added to any pair of glasses that allows visually impaired people to have a better understanding of the world around them. That could mean label or people recognition, zebra crossing detection or even book reading.
This has bags of potential, although the judges felt that perhaps the team needs to focus in on a particular usecase. Either way, the state of the art algorithms and some external hardware have plenty of potential.
“No one yet has exploited these new technologies,” said the pitcher, Saveria Murgia. And if you’re visually impaired, the benefits of having glasses that can tell you what a sign says, or what things in shops are, must be huge – especially as it will be a self-learning system that increasingly tailor itself to a user’s life, such as by recognising friends.
Tinnitus sounds like one of the most annoying conditions to have – sufferers perceive a constant ringing sound in their ears where no such sound exists. It’s caused by hyperactive nerve cells in the brain’s auditory centre, and each sufferer has a specific frequency for their ringing noise. Tinnitracks takes this frequency and filters it out of a user’s favourite music. By listening to this filtered music regularly, the hyperactivity which causes the tinnitus can be reduced.
In Europe, 25 million have a serious degree of chronic tinnitus, about 3 million of them in Germany. The condition places sufferers under a high degree of physiological strain and there are very few treatment options – but trials show that Tinnitracks can lower the noise of tinnitus by up to 50 percent.
Future plans could even see the technology adapted to an existing music platform like Spotify, although the biggest challenge was essentially getting into the market.
SOMA’s product Kelaa is described as an evidence-based mobile resilience program. It came about after a friend of CEO Johann Huber started suffering depression due to work-related stress, something that wasn’t immediately apparent due to the small and gradual appearance of symptoms such as mood swings.
That led Johann to decide that diagnosis would be easier if these changes could be visualised. With 40 percent of all days off from work being stress-related, it would appeal to companies, as well.
Methods such as stress coaching already exist but are not scalable, and no data is collected to see how well it works. There is also the chance that people simply won’t engage in such programs.
Kelaa, then, is a platform which takes biometric measurements and pesonalises stress interventions based solely on data collected by a smartphone. Amongst other things, it can quantify the quality of a user’s sleep (via the sensors of a smartphone left on your bed) and the emotions displayed during a phone call.
Analysis leads to daily feedback, including tips on how to improve the situation.
The company hopes to sign up corporate clients who might be interested in keep track of the company workforce as a whole, although whether that process would be possible in the face of the entrenched occupational health firms is debatable.
Kristian Ekström is a Finnish chiropractor who has already published a book on living your life better – and now he is looking to create an online platform that focuses on four themes; rest, motion, nutrition and mind.
Each of those four themes contains eight tasks, and users go through and pick out the ones they want to work on, from drinking enough water to high intensity training to spending more time with friends. The idea is to allow people to control their own path towards improving their health and wellbeing.
A free version will be available for users who can then also buy the ebook or individual tasks, and there are also plans for a pro version aimed at healthcare providers to help them find the right lifestyle tips for their patients.
Kristian also hopes to introduce a gamification element to allow users to compare their progress against that of their friends.
There were some doubts expressed over how easy it would be to sell the platform to doctors, and the ICT innovation element was perhaps missing in what is essentially a content model.
Headsted is another platform aimed at helping users develop their wellbeing, in this case through training mental fitness as you would physical fitness. Or, as pitcher and Headsted CEO Toni Vanhala put it: “What we want to do is give everyone a black belt in mental wellbeing.”
He himself suffered from social anxiety so badly that he couldn’t function properly. Having fought through his problems, he wanted to make it easier for others.
One in three people suffer from social anxiety during their lives, he said, which equates to 160 million Europeans a year. But many don’t seek help because they feel excluded, or they believe it’s their own weaknesses causing the problems.
Headsted creates personalised programs, such as sessions of a few minutes on things like cognitive thinking. The sessions are designed to provide effective techniques for relaxation, mindfulness and other psychological training.
While there are other similar platforms out there, this is the best on mobile, Toni said, and there was plenty of scope for future expansion – detecting symptoms early on, for example, could benefit healthcare providers, while there is also potential fields such as wearables, Internet of Things and big data.
The judges felt, however, that further validation was needed in terms of differentiation to other content-based solutions such as reading books and then taking action.
So, drum roll please…
The winner of the first of eight node finals in the Idea Challenge was: Tinnitracks. The Hamburg-based startup walked away with €40,000 as well as coaching and mentoring from EIT ICT Labs, integration into its big network and office space for six months.
The judges were impressed with the overall package presented by Tinnitracks co-founder Jörg Land, one of the eight people pitching in Eindhoven last week – a ready-made product, which has been classed as a medical device in Europe, making it easier to persuade insurance companies to cover the costs of treatment, as well as a network of hearing aid providers.
Afterwards, Jörg told Silicon Allee why the judges had plumped for Tinnitracks: “I think it was that we cover almost everything, so we have the right partners, we know how to enter the market. It’s the whole story.”
He added that the money would go on improving the technology and setting up the network of partners, and revealed he delighted to have won in such a strong field: “I was overwhelmed to be honest, because there were some very promising projects, very interesting projects from around Europe. I was surprised by the smart solutions we have seen here.”
Second place and €25,000 went to SOMA Analytics, while the €15,000 third prize went to Horus. Willem Jonker, CEO of EIT ICT Labs, presented the awards on stage at the Intramural Innovations for Extramural Care Symposium, which was taking place at the same time. He said: “What for us is important [is that] some of you will be winners of the prizes, but I hope that all of you… stay connected to our network. It is out goal and drive to make sure you get access to customers, and if you want to quickly grow your organisation, access to finance. That is the other tool that we are offering on a European level.”
Next up is the smart spaces final at the Helsinki Node, which takes place next week. Whether it will prove to be Finland’s smartest square kilometre, we shall have to wait and see.
Editor’s note: Silicon Allee is working in partnership with the Idea Challenge to promote innovation across Europe. This trip to Eindhoven was paid for by EIT ICT Labs.