Im Able has huge potential for stroke victims
The adage "practice makes perfect" could be used to describe a ground-breaking system invented by a local firm to help stroke victims.
Im-Able has received a $10,000 prize from ANZ under a scheme that helps innovative New Zealand firms reach a bigger export market.
Situated in modest offices in Queens Dr Im-Able is developing Able-X, a game-based product that could help stroke victims all over the world.
On paper the Able-X concept seems simple. But talk to chief executive Sunil Vather and it soon becomes clear how much work has gone into its development.
Stroke victims can often only use one hand, and designing a mouse that would work and stroke victims could hold was a long process.
The designers are not the usual nerds one associates with computer games and there was a big input from medical experts. Im-Able has seven investors including two GPs, a neurologist, an associate professor in medicine and two highly skilled IT experts.
Not only do the Able-X games have to stimulate the brain but they are also designed to encourage movement in the hands and arms. Stroke victims often have to relearn things we take for granted, like tying shoelaces, using a knife and fork, tightening a belt.
To get the brain working, the games are based on repetitive movements.
"The more repetition you get the more your brain remembers, or learns, how to do different things," Mr Vather says.
The games are also designed to be challenging and fun, as the longer they can keep people's interest the more they improve.
When a person suffers a stroke, the hospital will stabilise them and then send them home.
Internationally the standard for rehabilitation therapy is 18 hours a week but in New Zealand it is often only a few hours. Without regular rehabilitation, stroke victims quickly plateau and reach a point where they feel they are not getting any benefit from what they are doing.
The beauty of the game, Mr Vather says, is that it keeps their attention and they can see when they are improving.
Research has shown that Able-X can still help people years after a stroke, even if they have given up all other forms of rehabilitation.
Getting Able-X to this point has not been easy.
"At the moment we are building the market and burning cash. I would say it would be two years before we break even."
Mr Vather says well over $1 million has already been spent.
In New Zealand the Able-X console and mouse sells for $800 and interest is limited. The future of Able-X is in China, India and the United States.
"It has massive potential. Just in China alone, three million people have a stroke every year."
In countries such as India, China and Malaysia, where there is no welfare system, families take more responsibly for stroke and are willing to pay for Able-X, Mr Vather says.
But although the potential is overseas, he says he is committed to keeping as much of the firm's value in New Zealand as possible.