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22 May, 2020 - 09:27 By Tony Quested

Cambridge startup trials intelligent clothing for care homes in COVID-19 crisis

Cambridge startup Decorte Future Industries has won £50k from Innovate UK to fund final R & D trials of advanced technology intelligent clothing in care homes to help combat coronavirus.

It is the maximum Innovate UK was mandated to award in the ‘Business-led innovation in response to global disruption’ competition.

As Business Weekly revealed in February, DFI (then in stealth) has developed intelligent, always-fitting clothing with embedded AI controls, which is machine washable and can be tumble dried – stealing a march on rival products from US and Korean tech giants.

The business, spearheaded by codebreaking ace Dr Roeland Decorte, has now put its foot on the gas to secure venture investment having applied the brake temporarily following the March 23 UK lockdown.

Dr Decorte said he was thrilled beyond belief at the Innovate UK grant which further validated the groundbreaking technology.

“It is fabulous to know that our core technology could help to continuously monitor and empower the elderly and vulnerable in care homes.

“Innovate UK let us know they were astounded to receive over 8600 applications, their highest number ever; in fact, they say, this is more than all competitions in the 2019/20 financial year put together. This was possibly the most competitive grant in Innovate UK’ history.”

Decorte Future Industries, officially launched in August 2019, builds body-adaptive (always-fitting) intelligent clothing that allows single-platform remote monitoring of multimodal biometrics (vitals, including body-temperature, coughing) of the wearer. 

It further enhances the mobility of the user by allowing them to employ the same embedded hardware to remotely control devices through voice, gesture and touch commands, e.g. through touching their sleeve, using existing third-party AI. 

The business consists of Cambridge PhDs and engineers, advised by the Director of Engineering at Raspberry Pi; Cambridge University research, amongst other sources, has demonstrated that wearables can detect, and at times even predict and prevent, health issues.

While the product was initially conceived in the context of the defence sector, a retired care home CEO and adviser recognised the need for such single-platform remote monitoring and mobility-enhancing technology in the care sector, investing £5k+ – prompting FFI to start exploring that market in early 2020. 

Dr Decorte says that just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, the company and its EEN-awarded adviser – also the incoming head of innovation for a UK care home chain – investigated deploying the technology to render care more efficient and effective. 

In response to COVID-19, the company is now seeking to supercharge existing R & D to build and deploy as swiftly as possible the most basic, cheapest version of its technology, to allow remote monitoring of the elderly and vulnerable during the crisis.

Dr Decorte says: “Lives are being actively lost due to the lack of technologies enabling comprehensive 24/7 monitoring of vulnerable people in care. 

“Our proposed project is a six-month trial and final R & D process to take place in a single care home, to test efficiency, effectiveness of, as well as response of residents to such biometric monitoring and enhanced mobility through intelligent clothing. 

“In a recent SEHTA survey investigating the lack of technology in care, care home administrators and authorities responsible for over two million individuals ‘all seemed to agree that the ideal solution is a single platform into which all stakeholders, sensors and individual devices can feed and access data, and which records and manages everything in a single environment.’

“Intelligent clothing, covering the whole body, renders such a centralised gathering, sending an AI-automated analysis of resident data possible for the first time.

“Our solution would directly address industries and people that have been severely impacted by COVID-19 and hopefully save lives. 

“This will be achieved by making the process of monitoring the elderly and vulnerable in care (and elsewhere) much more efficient and effective, moving away from physical interactions that take place only occasionally at specified time intervals.

“The prevailing process often fails to provide the swift response needed in emergencies such as caused by COVID-19, leading to lost lives. Our solution transforms this lottery to the certainty of tech-enabled 24/7 remote care.

“Our technology would provide a much more responsive and holistic companion to physical monitoring and triage by nurses, carers, NHS staff, or individuals themselves (self-monitoring), allowing algorithms to track body temperature patterns and coughing, using the same criteria as the NHS call centres to flag worrying patterns and to suggest when medical help may need to be sought, or is critical. This would furthermore seriously alleviate pressure on nurses, care workers and other staff. 

“Introducing intelligent clothing that monitors the wearer's biometrics is clearly an innovative and ambitious project – only possible because of our existing patent-pending, lightweight, low-cost exoskeleton allowing such clothing to fit any body-shape or size. 

“Our clothing would not be a medical device and thus able to be deployed much more quickly, as it does not diagnose or treat, instead being a typical wearable, offering a 24/7 overview and additional protection alongside physical third-party or self-monitoring, especially during those intervals when no monitoring is normally taking place.”

Dr Decorte says third party devices can be integrated into the company’s smart-clothing architecture: these devices simply need to be combined into a single care-focused product in the final R & D process. 

“This grant allows us to immediately start this process and begin engagement with the care industry. The nature of the tech also means that our work can, by definition, be done remotely, with clothing sent to care homes and data processed by the company at home. 

“This Innovate UK success represents the potential birth of a new intelligent clothing industry dramatically enhancing care.”

At present care homes do not have the resources to continuously monitor residents' health and vitals. Checkups are infrequent, with long intervals, and often rely on simple visual recognition by staff of residents in distress. 

Care home staff – particularly in homes without nursing – are not routinely required to take observations on residents (British Geriatrics Society). In case of sudden-onset or rapidly worsening conditions like COVID19, critical rapid response often comes much too late.

Dr Decorte reasons that the lack of continuous monitoring also means that patterns are hard to establish for staff and the wrong action may be taken: care residents are ‘some of the most complex patients in primary care, with a high rate of unplanned hospital transfer, over half of which may be avoidable’ (Barker et al. 2020, in Age and Ageing 49, 142). 

“This puts unnecessary additional strain on staff and homes – and the NHS. The £16.5 billion-sector, with around 426k residents, is unprepared for the ageing population; demand will outstrip supply by 2022. Unavoidable shifts to home/remote-care  means demand for telehealth will explode, way beyond COVID19- distancing.”

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