When patients can’t communicate with their caregivers, it becomes a frustrating guessing game as to what would make the patient most comfortable. Patients who are cognitively intact but unable to speak or use a call button due to paralysis, breathing tubes, or other restrictions can’t convey how they’re feeling or what they need. Caregivers aren’t always able to determine what the need is, either.
Now, a Coralville, Iowa-based company, Voxello™, has developed a device that enables patients to express themselves when speech is limited or unavailable: the “noddle™.”
Noddle is an easy-to-use, plug-and-play device that connects to sensors, software, and a tablet. The device relies on signals from nonverbal patients: tongue clicks, eye blinks, or finger movements. Noddle is programmed to recognize a patients’ particular commands and responds by moving a cursor on the tablet’s screen. If a patient selects, for example, “room control,” a nurse will know to adjust the thermostat or lights according to the patient’s wishes. A patient with a headache may click “pain” so the caregiver can better identify and treat what the patient is experiencing.
“Noddle gives the patient autonomy that he or she would otherwise have,” says Rives Bird, Voxello CEO. “When people can’t communicate, they can become anxious or frustrated. This can prompt caregivers to sedate patients—which can slow down healing.”
Instead, Bird says, reducing sedation may help patients gain more mobility and heal more quickly. Improving autonomy also helps boost patients’ mental health—a key component of the healing process. Benefits to care providers include improving their understanding of the patient’s needs so an appropriate treatment response can be offered. The bottom line benefits for providers? Improved patient care, a reduction in preventable events, and lower costs.
The origin of the noddle can be traced to the Iowa Medical Innovations Group (IMIG) program at the University of Iowa. Under the direction of Dr. Richard Hurtig, a specialist in speech and communications disorders, a group of students came up with the idea and recognized it was a good one. That’s when Bird was brought in.
An executive with decades of medical device experience, Bird was charged with the task of taking the idea in the lab and commercializing it.
“The founders had conducted preclinical trials and had working prototypes, and had drawn upon Dr. Hurtig’s 25 years’ experience before I got involved,” he said. “They were good at science but not so much at commercializing the device. They were ready to let someone run the company.”
Among Bird’s first responsibilities: Secure funding. One of the entities he reached out to was IICorp.
“IICorp provided significant support for our SBIRs and matching funding during the initial and second phases of our development,” he said. “I was impressed by what the IICorp grant writers did. They asked us business questions but tailored the answers to the scientists who were reviewing the request.”
Voxello raised $500,000 through grants and $800,000 in private equity from investors throughout the Midwest. Most recently, the company received a $250,000 Propel grant through the Iowa Economic Development Authority to further refine the device.
Noddle is currently being tested in key markets and has received very favorable response to the system. Clinical testing is also an opportunity for Voxello to find out more about how it can help patients and their caregivers before the product is introduced on a large scale.
“We wanted to get it into the clinics and find out what their needs are,” Bird said. “We have lots of capabilities, but we need to know what our clients want and need.”
And once the product is rolled out nationally?
“I anticipate first-year sales will be good. Once hospitals know about the product and the review papers start coming out, the ‘light switch’ will go on very quickly,” Bird predicts. “That could be my best day and worst day at the same time,” he adds with a laugh.