July 5, 2023
Most start-ups are born in that elusive window of opportunity – formulated in response to an unsolved issue or an underserved customer base. Whatever the industry and whatever the product – a chance emerges to disrupt the status quo.
While all of the above can be applied to Spritely, the founding story of this Christchurch-based health technology start-up is deep-rooted in personal circumstance.
“My dad struggled to manage his own long-term condition, COPD,” said Christopher Dawson, speaking as Founder and CEO.
COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – is a common lung disease causing restricted airflow and breathing problems. Affecting hundreds of thousands of Kiwis, approximately 15% of adults aged over 45 years live with the disease and it’s the fourth leading cause of death in New Zealand.
“He lived in Napier until recently and I wanted to keep an eye on him from Auckland,” Dawson added. “I’ve worked in software for a long time and I thought there must be a lot of people like me wanting to keep a close eye on the health of loved ones.”
Founded in 2016, Spritely is focused on developing age friendly technology to assist seniors who want to live independently for longer.
The start-up specialises in home-monitoring technology with a hardware lease and software licence component which runs in the cloud via Amazon Web Services (AWS). Dawson’s experience spans developing and scaling new software products following roles at Plexure and Affinity ID.
“Remote patient monitoring for hospitals is a natural home for Spritely,” Dawson said.
Rolled out to national media coverage in early 2020, the technology was first deployed in a retirement village in Christchurch. A matter of weeks later, the country entered the first lockdown in the fight against COVID-19.
“Retirement villages remain a core part of our business today but back then we had to plan our future not knowing when it would be possible to re-enter villages,” Dawson recalled. “We decided to double down on remote monitoring and I’m very pleased we did.”
Making health tech mainstream
During the past 10 years, the healthcare market has experienced “rapid advancement” in the availability of consumer electronics to help people manage long-term care at home. In New Zealand however, such technology is not easily accessible.
“And even when it is, it’s not very easy to use,” Dawson explained. “Home monitoring technology is under-utilised in New Zealand.”
If maximised efficiently, Dawson advocated “huge benefits” to the public health system especially if people who need support most are granted easy access.
“Utilising mainstream health technology for home monitoring depends on equity of access and interoperability,” he cautioned. “Patients can’t take advantage of modern health technology if they can’t access it.
“And clinicians can’t get the most from it if it isn’t well integrated with the wider health system. This presents challenges for the adoption of innovative health technology to monitor patients at home.”
The domino effect of such barriers to adoption continues to severely impact priority populations with high rates of chronic disease and poor overall health.
“It disadvantages them,” Dawson stated. “Many people within priority populations have limited experience of technology, poor access to devices such as smartphones and patchy connectivity.
“They can’t easily benefit from mainstream health technology and digital services that others benefit from. This can widen health disparities and perpetuate inequities.”
In an effort to overcome ongoing health issues in New Zealand, Spritely switched gears and invited older people with zero experience of touchscreens to co-design the product. The outcome is an equity-led tele-monitoring platform that almost anyone can use.
“You don’t need your own phone,” Dawson said. “You don’t need to download anything or set anything up. You don’t need to pair anything using Bluetooth. You don’t need Wi-Fi either.
“We got rid of everything that presented a challenge to our users. When we did that, we found that we simultaneously overcame a whole bunch of challenges for the nurses.”
Medical staff were frustrated at spending “too much time” offering technology support for patients – i.e. explaining how to set up an app store account. Now the focus can shift back to providing more healthcare to more people.
But designing technology for the hard to reach minority is challenging – not just technically but commercially.
“You need passion, purpose and real belief in what you’re doing,” Dawson acknowledged. “Our business has made accessibility and usability our core focus. That’s because we know that makes a massive difference in the lives of our end-users.”
Building hospital network value
As hospitals move to deliver more care closer to home in New Zealand, Spritely is seeking to “significantly reduce” the technology burden for staff and patients.
As a result, the business is primarily focused on increasing value to the country’s hospital network during the next 6-12 months.
“The health workforce in New Zealand is under huge pressure and the hospital facilities are stretched as well,” Dawson observed. “Home monitoring can help to keep priority populations with long-term conditions out of hospital and this can alleviate pressure on the system.”
But when assessing the key challenge currently hindering progress, Dawson cited that current reforms have created added difficulties when navigating approval processes within Te Whatu Ora – the public health agency of New Zealand.
“Despite that we are encouraged by the huge amount of support and enthusiasm we encounter when speaking with nurses and innovation leads,” he added. “Positive feedback from patients and clinicians keeps driving us to overcome each and every challenge.”
With an innovation roadmap set – and patients and nurses regularly consulted along the way – Spritely is also ramping up adoption of the company’s companion app which was launched during the past 12 months.
“This connects Spritely home monitoring patients to their friends and whanau,” Dawson explained. “We did this because there is strong evidence that whanau engagement can improve outcomes for patients with long-term conditions.”
From a product perspective, the business handles all hardware elements associated with the tablet, such as the glass protector, case and stand – plus a SIM card to take care of data management. This is managed with a single fee and is supported by a strong logistics operation ensuring clinicians don’t need to waste time managing or setting up the hardware.
Essentially, the offering is a fully-managed device kit that comes with pre-loaded software, configured specifically for a patient and delivered to the door.
“Spritely has been greatly assisted by our partnership with Qestral, a new generation retirement village,” Dawson added. “Their residents helped us co-design the technology. Without that sort of co-operation and collaboration it would be even more difficult.”
Qestral is a developer of retirement villages and continues to work in a joint venture capacity with Spritely.
“Starting a health tech company isn’t easy,” Dawson said. “There’s a lot of milestones along the way that are worth celebrating but you can’t achieve any of them without a great team.”
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