How do you develop technology for social impact and commercial success?

A pioneering approach to patient rehabilitation

Charles Nduka is a consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon, and Chairman of the Medical Advisory Board for Facial Palsy UK. During his surgical career, Charles had seen first-hand the challenges that patients with facial palsy often experience as part their rehabilitation following reconstructive surgery.

Performing regular exercises in front of the mirror to retrain the facial muscles is a key factor in patient outcomes, but for many this was an understandably distressing routine. Charles began to think about how new technologies could enable patients to practice these exercises, without having to directly confront the effects of their paralysis. He heard about the electric potential sensor (EPS) technology being developed at the University of Sussex, and began to think that it might hold the key.

Around this time, Charles got talking to Graeme Cox, a serial entrepreneur and fellow parent of a student at Brighton College. After selling his last venture - a managed security services company - to Dell, Graeme had spent a few years producing films, but was getting itchy feet and wanted to return to his first passion, technology.

As Charles described how he was exploring EPS and its capacity to interpret electrical signals from the human face, Graeme recognised two other applications for the technology – in recognising people’s emotions and attentiveness.

Building up the business

Charles and Graeme founded Emteq in the summer of 2015. By combining EPS with virtual and augmented reality devices, they hoped to develop a product that would solve the problem Charles had identified, while also possessing huge commercial potential in other areas. 

Due to the Sussex Innovation Centre’s close ties with the University, and its involvement in commercialising EPS technology, the pair felt that it was the obvious place to locate their start-up. As well as offering a suitably flexible space for a growing company, senior members of the support team had a close understanding of both the technology and what Emteq wanted to achieve with it.

Over the first few months, they used a virtual membership to host a part-time software developer and meet with various people who had been involved in the EPS project. One, a PhD student, would eventually join the team full-time. Once the business needed a more permanent base, they decided to save money by sharing an office with Agile App, another technology start-up.

“That feeling of community, being part of something bigger, is really important in the early days of a business,” says Graeme. “It breeds confidence and optimism when you know that you’re surrounded by other people who are working just as passionately towards their goal as you are towards yours.

“We also appreciate the little, practical things that are taken off our plates as founders. We don’t have to spend our time on basic admin, we can bring in a Catalyst Team member to spend a day a week making sure that things happen. It allows us to focus solely on the business and keep our momentum going.”

The future of emotion recognition

Little more than 18 months into their journey, Emteq have expanded to a team of 8 full-time staff, and have filed a number of patent applications for their technology. As well as continuing to develop products for healthcare, they are seen as one of the key players at the forefront of new applications in virtual and augmented reality, delivering deep understanding of human expression and emotion for the next generation of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Emteq has been invited to speak at numerous events, including leading conferences on Virtual and Augmented Reality, disruptive technologies and HCI in London, San Francisco and Paris.

Emteq have to date secured grant and pre-seed equity funding totalling over £1.3m, and are currently in the process of raising a seed funding round, the success of which has been boosted through introductions brokered by the Centre's Executive Director, Mike Herd. The Emteq team will bring their VR and wearables products to UK and US markets in early 2018, before moving onto large-scale production with the help of series-A financing.

“The future looks bright, and we hope one day to be recognised as the gold standard for emotion recognition wearables,” says Graeme. “Equally exciting though, is the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of people recovering from facial paralysis.”