Giving a voice through an app
The inspiration for Mentech came from a young man with an intellectual disability, with whom Meinders used to go swimming as a volunteer. ‘He was always cheerful, but at certain times, he was genuinely unhappy,’ Meinders explains. ‘However, he couldn't explain why. Then someone discovered that the reason was that his shoes were too tight. I found that so heartbreaking that I wanted to develop something to better understand those emotions.’
The solution became reality. Together with the Mentech team, Meinders developed HUME, a sock that measures stress levels based on physiology (the science that focuses on how organs, tissues, and cells work together). ‘The sock contains sensors that measure skin conductivity, movement, and heart rate. Changes in these parameters indicate the level of stress. The data is translated into three colors in the app; green indicates everything is fine, orange represents mild tension, and red is an indicator of stress. As a caregiver, you receive a warning when a client's stress level rises. This allows for timely intervention, preventing escalations. So, in a way, the app gives individuals with intellectual disabilities a voice.’
Validation with the target audience
There was still a lot to be done before a product could be brought to market. ‘When I came up with the idea, I immediately looked for a partner, Reon Smits, who wanted to help and contribute. To test the concept, we set up a large-scale pilot study involving around 10 care institutions. However, when COVID-19 broke out, everything came to a stop. We couldn't do anything at a time when it was crucial. It gave us extra time to develop, but we still needed that validation.’
Meinders continues, ‘Validation with the target audience was crucial because caregivers rely on what the app tells them. They perform interventions based on the information provided by our app. So, it has to be accurate. We also had our protocol reviewed by a medical ethics review board since we work with individuals lacking decision-making capacity who cannot provide consent themselves. Additionally, we collect and process their personal data, which falls under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). So, on one hand, there was the clinical academic validation, and on the other hand, the legal aspects.’
Building on the knowledge and expertise of others
Meinders' current involvement in this sector has nothing to do with his background. He once obtained a PhD in a physics-related topic from TU Delft. ‘It has zero connection to what I'm doing now. That's why I've built a strong team around me with diverse knowledge and expertise. Our platform measures physiology using sensors. We have a multidisciplinary team of software developers, data scientists, and engineers who design and build the product's hardware. HUME is a complex product, so we have a wide range of competencies on board.’
The tools provided by Rabobank, including the Rabo Innovation Loan, helped Mentech grow. ‘With the initial funds, we built our proof of concept. But what really helped us was the ability to scale up quickly. Through Rabobank's Money Meets Ideas platform, we brought Eric Riegen, our commercial director, on board. This allowed us to refine our proposition and conduct paid pilots for care institutions in the Netherlands.’
Collaboration with Rabobank
Vincent Ruis and Michel Ziekman from Rabobank supported Mentech during its startup phase. Ruis: ‘What I find remarkable is that Erwin experienced this problem firsthand and thought: can't we solve this with technology? And he still considers the added value of the innovation for clients. Furthermore, it's a great example of how Rabobank can support entrepreneurs at every stage. We started with an innovation loan, which allowed Mentech to gather initial evidence for their innovation. Then, with the help of our network, they made further progress in the company. And due to their growth, we were able to provide follow-up financing. It's a textbook example of growing together with your customer in every phase of their journey.’
Ziekman adds: ‘We utilized multiple tools offered by Rabobank, including the Money Meets Ideas platform. In collaboration with our partner KplusV, we bring investors and entrepreneurs together. Erwin pitched his idea there, and Eric Riegen was in the audience, interested in becoming their commercial director. This enabled them to take further steps. The collaboration with SARA Robotics is another example,’ says Ruis. ‘Both Mentech and SARA Robotics received financing from Rabobank, and their innovations complement each other perfectly: Mentech measures stress levels, and SARA, the care robot, can calm clients. The fact that they are joining forces is unique.’
An extension for caregivers
Intervening is also an important next step for Meinders. ‘Our software currently recognizes tension and can measure it accurately. But we want it to recognize multiple emotions, such as pain or sadness, and link the appropriate intervention to them.’
“That's what I'm most proud of: we’re working with the team to build a product that truly addresses a problem.”
‘The collaboration with SARA Robotics is crucial in that regard. Our ultimate dream is to have an intelligent robot that can provide human-like contact, just like caregivers do. It should be seen as an extension, offering additional assistance so that caregivers have more time for personalized care, providing the care and attention that individuals need. That's what I'm most proud of: we’ re working with the team to build a product that truly addresses a problem.’
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