When Adrian Ang was a wee boy of about 6 years old, he suffered an asthma attack while playing with fire sparklers with his friends and cousins at a Mooncake festival.
“After inhaling the smoke from the sparklers, I vividly remember the feeling of being breathless and gasping for air. No matter how hard I tried, there never seemed to be enough air for my lungs,” says Ang, in an interview with e27.
Asthma is a disease that attacks the lungs’ bronchi tubes, causing spasms that result in breathing difficulties. There are about 334 million asthma sufferers in the world today. A Singapore Disease Burden Survey conducted in 2010 estimates 20 per cent of children and 5 per cent of adults suffer from asthma.
More than 20 years since the attack, Ang has outgrown the worst of asthma, but his childhood affliction was never far from mind. This year, he has launched a project to help asthmatic patients — especially children — manage their condition using smart tech.
“As I was only six-years-old then [at the time of first asthma attack], it was not an easy task for me to describe my asthma condition to physicians. Intimidated by the thought of having to take medication, I chose not to be entirely honest with my family doctor,” says Ang.
“The typical assessment of a child’s asthma condition relies greatly on a child’s ability to describe the symptoms to the doctors. Without a single method of objective measurement, physicians prescribe asthma medication through titrations method. This could lead to over-prescription of medication, which can further lead to adverse medical conditions such as heart problems and depression,” he adds.
Tackling the pain point of asthma diagnosis
While studying at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Ang founded Singapore-based medtech startup AEvice Health with his university mentor Professor Ser Wee and bosom friend Edmund Shao (who handles business development). Together, they worked on developing asthma monitoring device that was powered by a proprietary technology developed in-house in NTU (and successfully patented in 2015).
The result — BioAsthma, a small, non-invasive device that sits on the child’s chest. It monitors crucial symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and respiratory rate to determine the severity of an asthma attack.
“Our intelligent algorithm pre-empts an asthma attack by constantly detecting abnormalities in your vital signs. In the event that you are about to have an attack, BioAsthma automatically warns you and the people around you, allowing sufficient time to call for the appropriate medical aid,” says Ang.
The data points collected from each attack are transmitted to a server hosted on cloud. The information will then be used by physicians to accurately analyse the child’s asthma condition without worrying about inaccuracies and inconsistencies arising from the patient’s statements.
Creating the most optimal design
Before it was a simple stick-on device, BioAsthma went through several design changes. For its first design, it was meant to be worn as a strap-on wearable device.
“[It had] one belt extended around the torso of a patient, while the other extended over the left shoulder. While this design improved the ability of BioAsthma to pick up acoustic signals, it was uncomfortable to the user,” says Ang. When it was time to switch its adhesive sticky design, the team had to ensure the sticker was non-instrusive as a child’s skin might be sensitive to the sticker.
“One of the key challenges was to reduce the thickness of BioAsthma to a level where it would be comfortable for children to wear. This is a technical challenge as reducing thickness would disrupt the internal architecture of BioAsthma device. To date, we are still resolving this. However, I am confident that my team will be able to overcome this challenge over the course of the next four months,” says Ang.
During the R&D phase, the AEvice Health team worked closely with the Dr Daniel Goh Yam Thiam, Head of Department for Paediatric at National University Hospital (NUH), and carried out clinical trials at the hospital. It yielded 100,000 samples, which Ang says is “promising”.
Next year, the team is in talks to carry out more clinical trials with public and private hospitals during the end of the product development phase. It is slated to take place near the end of 2017.
In late September this year, AEvice Health won a pitching competition which took place during the Singapore Week of Innovation and TeCHnology (SWITCH). The competition was organised by Slush Singapore, Techventure and Channel NewsAsia (CNA), which awarded it a Techventure-sponsored S$50,000 (US$35,000) cash prize. This year, the startup participated in a reality accelerator programme called Start-UP produced by CNA.
“Our immediate plan now is to stick closely with our planned schedule to further refine our business plan, and to draw focus on our product development. Concurrently, we will be applying for SPRING Singapore’s Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme (TECS) funding,” says Ang.
Asthma has no cure, but with better monitoring devices such as BioAsthma, it will help patients alleviate their condition with accurate diagnosis of the attacks, leading to more effective prevention measures.
Image Credit: AEvice Health