Tessa’s algorithms will help millions with dementia maintain autonomy

Tinybots Nijmegen Novio Tech Campus

Wang Long Li wants to contribute to healthcare. Not as a doctor, but with tools that are perfectly tailored to clients' needs. That's why he founded Tinybots, and designed robot Tessa. “In healthcare, we need to think more about working together, and not keep reinventing the wheel.”

At a young age, Wang became an informal caregiver. "Together with my mother, I had to take care of my father, who passed away when I was just 19 years old. That made me really want to improve healthcare. I became particularly interested in patient behaviour. If you pay attention to behaviour early in the process of a disease, you can impact your clients’ health.”

In his PhD research, Wang studied new technologies in healthcare and how to use them meaningfully. He focused on the elderly and people with cognitive impairment. Based on his research and his contact with clients, he found that in addition to physical needs, people also have psychological needs. People want to be involved with others, remain competent in their actions, and retain autonomy over their lives.

“I have designed a new robot, based on these needs. This robot provides guidance in crucial situations, but in a homely and warm manner. Clients very much want to maintain their autonomy, so our robot will never give out commands. The robot will ask a question or might give a suggestion at the right moment, in such a way that the client is encouraged to take the right decision themselves. This has proven to be more effective.”

More than a robotics company

Wang explains that Tinybots is not a company that solely builds robots. “We did design Tessa, our own robot, but we produced her in collaboration with partners. We always intended to become a platform for Artificial Intelligence (AI). As such, we can improve healthcare and look for collaborations and connections.”

“Our platform can be connected to other people’s products, to support their products in adapting to the user. We believe in collaboration and don’t want to bring more healthcare products to market. Why should we make all these products ourselves, when there are companies that have already invented them? The strength of Tinybots lies in the data we collect with Tessa. I think ultimately, by working with the right partners, we can customise a client’s entire environment based on personal needs, so that they can live at home longer and enjoyably.”

According to Wang, there are several challenges to technological innovations in healthcare. “Our target group is people with dementia. To them, speech can pose difficulties. How do you make sure that a speech-controlled system can still understand them? And, as the disease progresses, might new interventions be needed? Our platform lets us adapt verbal guidance of clients to their needs, because it learns from all users.”

Deployment through healthcare providers

Tinybots deploys its robot Tessa and the platform via healthcare providers. This too, has not always been easy. “We have set up a second team to teach organisations how to work with our robot and how to embed the innovation in their standard care process. This way, the added value of the robot becomes obvious. It would be a shame if the robot would end up on a shelf after a few weeks.”

That is why, Tinybots works with care organisations to see whether the robot adds value to the care they provide. “If we see that people are interested, we first run a pilot. Does it really add value to the process, like higher quality care or time savings?” If so, the robots are implemented throughout the organisation. And Tinybots helps organisations with their strategic planning. “At that point, we offer a support service called Tessa-as-a-Service (TaaS). We take over the logistics and management, so the organisation can focus on providing care.”

High ambitions

There is no doubt about the ambitions Wang and his team have with Tinybots. “There are 50 million people with dementia, and that group will double over the coming 20 years. We want to help them all. That might be a big ambition, but we’re going to put everything into achieving it. We'll find a way.”

The Nijmegen based MedTech startup now has 2,000 robots active in the Netherlands and wants to grow to 5,000 to 10,000 in the coming year. “Once we have achieved that, we need to grow 3 to 5 times each year thereafter and expand even further. We are already present in Belgium and Germany and have experience with pilots in Norway, Italy, and Sweden.”

Innovation nomination

Tinybots has recently been nominated for the KVK Innovation Top 100. The team sees the nomination as a compliment. “We’re all here for personal reasons and our motivation is to solve problems. The recognition is very nice, but ultimately, our goal is to help people. So that's what we’re going to do over the next few years.”