Last month Medical Delta proclaimed Wolk Heupairbag as the winner of the preliminary round of the Dutch National Health Innovation Award (Zorginnovatieprijs) in the Zuid-Holland region. In the run-up to the national election on 12 March, we spoke to Mendes Hogestyn, one of the entrepreneurs behind Wolk.
The company worked together with TU Delft, the LUMC, healthcare providers and patients to come to its innovation. “Our goal is to eliminate hip fractures. One way or another. And if you can do that in good regional cooperation, that is even better.”
The idea is actually not our own. It comes from Hans Schröder who invented a hip airbag as a joke. His mother sometimes fell. To tease her, he turned a yellow inflatable swim ring into a ‘hip airbag’. But what started out as a joke, slumbered in his mind. What if something like that could really be done? He lacked the resources and the knowledge to develop it. He then approached Filippo (van Hellenberg-Hubar-ed.), who approached to me. We knew each other from TU Delft and although it did not fit in with either of our area of expertise, we were immediately interested. I studied mechanical engineering, Filippo aerospace engineering. Really something else. Moreover, we had never actually had to deal with tise problem ourselves. But the idea was simple yet effective. With such an invention we could really help people.
In the Netherlands, around 25,000 hip fractures occur every year. The costs are €40,000 per fracture, bringing you to a total of one billion a year. The recovery is difficult and it has a huge impact. So much so that a third of people who break a hip, die within a year. They do not die from the fracture, but often do not get over the impact and long recovery. Around half of the rest of the patients do not return to their old level of self-reliance.
The airbag is a band that is worn under clothing. If the carrier falls, it fills with air within a tenth of a second to absorb the blow. Furthermore, the hip airbag sends a message to a contact person with, based on GPS, the location of the person who has fallen. In addition to preventing hip fractures, people also purchase Wolk to make them feel confident. The fear of falling, limits the freedom of the elderly. With Wolk they stay more active and live independently for longer.
The fact that Medical Delta proclaimed us regional winner is a nice recognition.
In the initial phase in which we explored the problem and the question, we did everything in short time frames. Increasingly small investments, small steps. In the preliminary phase we sought cooperation with the LUMC. They are now coming into the picture again to substantiate the CE certified product with trials.
We have also called on TU Delft engineers for development. In particular, the algorithm that determines whether a movement is safe or is a fall, is very complicated. That has been worked on for a long time. This advanced algorithm was developed by TU Delft on behalf of Wolk, in particular by the robotics department of the 3ME faculty. The method of building the algorithm is unique. We do everything around it here in house.
We have found healthcare institutions willing to perfect the product with us. Wolk has a high level of ‘it doesn’t hurt to try’. That helps. But in general, healthcare institutions do not dare to use a new product that is not fully scientifically substantiated. They like it, but as long as it is not proven, the enthusiasm is low. We are therefore very happy with the organizations that had the courage to help us. Health insurers also don’t like taking risks. They are now looking carefully at indemnity options. That is why it is very important for us that the trial study will be performed by a strong and independent party such as the LUMC.
They gave us direction during the design process and were at the front as soon as the product was available. We also had a lot of contact with clients to optimize the design and user-friendliness. We wanted to develop something that works, but is also comfortable. After all, you wear it under your clothing. The moment users said they forgot they were wearing it, we knew we were on the right track.
One of our first customers is the healthcare organization ‘Tante Louise’ in Bergen op Zoom. They were our early adopters. They have fifteen nursing homes with 1,100 clients. In total they had 55 hip fractures per year. By using fifty Wolk Hip Airbags for some of their residents, this has been reduced to 29. They are now going to further implement Wolk to reduce this number even further.
No, now we are with seven people: a development team and a sales team. We now have fifty care homes and 150 private clients among our customers. We have a lot of contact with both groups and that motivates enormously. At the beginning, we had to put up with and propagate our belief in the product. Now pays off. I recently met a gentleman who had fallen by bike. He immediately felt that his airbag was blowing up. After the fall he could just get up and even get back on the bike to continue his journey.
The fact that Medical Delta proclaimed us regional winner is a nice recognition. Now that the national election is coming, it will be exciting. We are really looking forward to it. There is a jury award and a public award and we naturally hope that many people will vote for Wolk. If we do this well, the PR is of course very interesting for us. But it also helps that more people get access to the product. Because our mission to help eliminate hip fractures remains."