Business management

Smiles all round

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the founders of Charco Neurotech decided to help out and put purpose at the core of their business.

The seeds for Charco Neurotech were sown. Following research into the effects of Parkinson’s, Jung and co-founder Floyd Pierres developed the CUE1, a wearable, non-invasive device using stimulation and cueing to improve movement.

“We had a vision of a medtech company bridging the gap between scientists, developers and patients,” says Jung. The fledgling company’s roster includes specialist medical advisers, biomedical students and business mentors. In addition, working together with Parkinson’s groups has allowed them to test their devices directly with Parkinson’s sufferers throughout development.

Reaping the awards of hard work

Incorporated in June 2019, Charco Neurotech’s founders joined the Imperial White City Incubator to hone their entrepreneurial skills. In recognition of the 16% improvement in movement tasks their prototype achieved, they won an Impact Award for technological innovation, sponsored by NatWest, and the Helen Hamlyn Design Award for people-centred healthcare design. A patent grant and MedTech SuperConnector funding followed.

Many start-ups were poleaxed when coronavirus swept the UK, but Charco was well placed to adapt. “We quickly realised the impact it would have because we have medics on the team,” says Jung. Chief medical officer Floyd Pierres worked one of the first shifts covering the newly established Covid wards. Jung adds: “I remember Floyd coming into a meeting afterwards and saying ‘PPE is going to be an issue’, long before everyone brought it up.

“Charco has hired bright people who are very fast in adapting. As scientists, we tried to understand what was going on and act rapidly. For example, we started remote working before lockdown to get used to it.”

A growing concern

Throughout the crisis, Charco continued to grow, hiring additional team members via Zoom.

Thanks to this foresight, testing for the CUE1 was able to go ahead, following coronavirus protocols. “We projected that Covid would slow down during summertime. We were intending to do user testing a bit later, in October, November, but we brought everything forward. When lockdown eased, we did all the user testing, believing that in October, it would probably peak again. We completed just before the second wave.”

Purpose is everything for Charco. We gain energy from seeing people with Parkinson’s backing us, developing the device with us, brainstorming ideas. We are an R&D company that develops a product to make real-life impact. That R&D does not stop: we are continuously working to improve our technology

Lucy Jung
Founder and CEO, Charco Neurotech

Not content with solely pursuing the company’s purpose to help Parkinson’s patients, the team split its efforts to join the fight against the pandemic. Working with other entrepreneurs, the ShieldNHS project resulted in the donation of thousands of face shields to care homes, hospitals, GP practices and ambulance services. “We never thought we were going to do something so big, but we brainstormed how, as a medtech company, we could help. We understand supply chain and manufacturing, and have the skills for product development, problem solving and connecting to hospitals. We found a protective face shield designed in the US, very cheap, very easily made. We contacted the design company and brought it to the UK,” she says.

The result was more than 63,000 shields donated to more than 83 facilities across the country. “We had great support from the NatWest team, connecting us with people who could further the project, especially with distribution. Floyd and myself funded the first 1,000 shields, then others jumped in to donate so we could make more. Lots of local people volunteered their time and skills, including the fire station crew, which helped with the stapling and delivering. It was an amazing collaboration.”

Coronavirus didn’t just divert resource from the CUE1 development, it also hampered its financing. “When we started fundraising in March 2020, everything was looking good. We slowed down because we were working on ShieldNHS,” says Jung. “However, we were still developing the value of the company, and investors who had seen our user testing came to us in the autumn. We’re now very grateful to be closing the round oversubscribed.”

The team remains focused on its core goal. “Purpose is absolutely everything for Charco. We gain energy from seeing people with Parkinson’s backing us, developing the device with us, brainstorming ideas. We are an R&D company that develops a product to make real-life impact. That R&D does not stop: we are continuously working to improve our technology.”

Mentoring is key

The company employs seven full- and part-time staff, but also receives an impressive amount of external support. Mentoring has been key in Charco’s success, both on the business and medical side. Dr David Galloway advises on clinical trials, product development and regulation, while Govind Pindoria, executive director of Imperial College Innovations, has been non-executive director since their time at the incubator. Former Samsung senior executive and founder of KingoSpring Accelerator, Jatty Jung, acts as business adviser.

“Charco has benefited hugely from mentorship. Govind has guided us from the beginning,” enthuses Jung. “He believes in our vision, and he’s someone that we can go to if there’s an emergency, knowing he’s going to give us clearer insight and potential solutions, rather than just tell us it’s going to be fine.”

Neil Bellamy, head of technology, media, telecoms and services at NatWest, also shares his experience with the team. “Now financial projection is becoming very important, we’ve asked Neil if he can come and have regular meetings with us,” says Jung. “He kindly said ‘yes’. We have a young, enthusiastic team, willing to learn and take advice, and it’s great having senior advisers guiding us.”

Looking ahead, the aim is to get the CUE1 to market in early 2021. Jung explains: “With the pandemic, lots of people with Parkinson’s are struggling and their symptoms are getting worse. We started a priority list and projected that it would take a month or two to fill. It took less than three days, which shows that people are waiting for our product. It’s our job to get it out there as soon as possible.” Trials with the NHS and a South Korean specialist are under way.

Whatever the challenge, says Jung, the Charco team can find a solution. With so much drive and dedicated support, it seems likely they will. “We believe it is going to be a long journey to improve quality of life for people with Parkinson’s. But we have a strong vision and motivation, and we will overcome the difficulties by working together as a team.”

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