Rehabilitation therapy can be a repetitive and arduous process, both for the patients and for physiotherapists. In University, Arno Penders began working on a research project that tried to solve one aspect of this problem, trying to find a way to motivate children through their rehabilitation process. And he was successful, developing a technology that ‘gamified’ rehabilitation therapy. The product was Matti, which is a interactive playmat which an can be used to measure and see progression for patient with different problems.
In our conversation, Arno talks about his journey, from being a university research student, to the core values he developed in establishing a successful startup, all while keeping his initial goal in mind. This is his startup adventure.
What is your startup origin story?
Matti was my first entrepreneurial experience. It started as a university project in Gent University, wherein we wanted to find a way to motivate children during long term rehabilitation therapy. Since therapy is such a long process, its quite difficult to really track your progress, especially if the progress is so gradual that it doesn’t really register in your daily life.
And this lack of tangible progress can be quite detrimental to the mental state of the patient, and negatively impact overall progress. So we decided to ‘gamify’ this therapy, and provide a way for both patients and physiotherapists to gain more insight into the progress and evolution of the patient.
With products like Matti, we develop interactive tools for rehabilitation therapy.
Although we developed the technology for Matti in University, we didn’t want to treat it as a temporary research project. We didn’t want to just spend, say, four years researching the technology and then move on to another project. We wanted to find a solution. What I find most promising towards the future, not only for us, but for HealthTech in general, is the implementation of data within rehabilitation therapy. It used to be that physiotherapist assess themselves whether there is progress, and of course, they are the best people to do it. But having tangible data can give an extra edge to these physiotherapists, and this is a solution we are working to provide.
From the beginning, the goal was to solve this problem for physiotherapists, and get the solution to the people that needed it. And that will always be the goal.
What were some of the biggest mindset shifts that you had to undergo when going from an academic to a businessman?
The biggest one is definitely cultivating a ‘go to’ mindset and learning to trust your own instincts. You should of course listen to other’s opinion sometimes, but don’t only rely on that. You have to learn to trust your own instincts. We also had to keep in mind that as a Startup, we had limited resources. Especially in early stages, you don’t really have a lot of time. You have to make progress fast.
The way we pushed through this hurdle is really through keeping our eye on the prize, trying to keep in mind what we wanted to achieve as the minimal viable product, and checking it with our potential customers. That is how we could compromise without feeling bad about compromising, since we orient our research towards those we help.
We always look towards our first goal, which was to help physiotherapists.
The way to do this and the way to help physiotherapists the most is to make a good company which is able to make profit, develop its own technology, and make it available to the people that need it.
Therefore sales is a big part in making a good company, and we really cannot just stick to research . We have to remember that a business can only thrive if we have good sales. And I think because of this clarity we were able to go from academics to business in a smooth way.
What is one habit that you think was essential to your successful startup journey?
Finding a rhythm in your work, finding a ‘heartbeat’, especially if you’re in the beginning stages of the business.
If you don’t say that “Everyday this week, we are going to sit together and we are going to work on this project”, then its not really going to happen.
And this habit I deploy even to this day. For example, our company has weekly updates with our cofounders, and since the beginning of the pandemic, we also have daily update sessions with our whole team every morning, as a kickstart to the day. Especially with everyone working at home, its really easy to not only lose focus, but also lose sight of how everyone is improving and evolving. So finding a real heartbeat in your work day is essential.
What are some other core values that you think Startup’s would benefit from implementing?
Most importantly I would say, listen to your market. Listen to your customers. And don’t be afraid to really define who your customers are.
If you are able to really define who you are helping, it will be way easier to define what your product should look like, and then it will also be easier to get your product off the ground because it is designed keeping your customers in mind.
For example, we try to sell our product to group practices of physiotherapists, who are traditionally not really that comfortable working with this technology. We see that in hospitals, although this technology is very known, the prices are 10 times more than our product. So while we have a product that can be compared to other technologies, we try to focus it on a new market segment, on these private physiotherapists. This has advantages, since it’s a new market segment, there is not quite so much competition, which means that if the customer is actually looking for the product, they will want to buy it. On the other hand, the lack of an established market might suggests that not a lot of people have thought of buying it, because it wasn’t an option. Therefore, you really have to push your product in the market, which can be quite difficult in a new market segment.
How would you describe the current startup scene in Belgium?
Currently we are in contact with Imec.istart, and through them it’s really handy to get in contact with a lot of different start-ups. The community really helps. What I like most is that every start-up is different, but we all go through the same struggles, and its really nice to be able to talk to people who have just gone through a struggle that you are going through right now and get their advice. And it also helps in networking and finding resources.
As a researcher, what would you like to see better implemented in the Belgium education system?
Hmm. While I don’t think that everyone should be an entrepreneur, I do that that its very important to let people fail. Let them try, Let them fail. I see a lot of people that tell me “yeah a company, I could also do it myself, but I didn’t want to take the risk”. Throughout school, you have someone telling you that you need to get 50 percent to pass, and the whole system is built to get you to perform enough to get that 50 percent and move on to the next grade.
But it would be really interesting to let students have the opportunity to try something and fail. Maybe let them solve a problem in a different way. And if they find a solution, great. But if they don’t, instead of failing them automatically, maybe we could evaluate on the basis of how they tried to tackle this, was the method right, did they have a good idea?
Trying and failing is very important because in that way you develop a mentality that you can try something and you can fail and its not a problem. It is cultivating a mindset of ‘let us try, let us fail’ that might eventually lead to a win.
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