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Fight against forgetting with ichó

Author: Janina Groffmann
Behind founders’ ideas are often personal stories. And so it is with the ichó team: Three young students are developing a therapeutic sphere, to help their dementia-stricken grandparents. Haniel and the Social Impact Lab are supporting them in their efforts

Eleftherios Efthimiadis was in his mid-20s when his grandmother fell ill with dementia. It is difficult for the communication design student and his family to watch helplessly as the disease progresses. “It’s just heart-breaking to see your grandmother, who accompanied you through your childhood, become more and more difficult to reach,” says Efthimiadis, now 31 years old. The formerly strong and independent woman becomes insecure and disoriented. He wonders how he can succeed in communicating with his grandmother, keeping her busy, and not leaving all her memories and joie de vivre at the mercy of the advancing illness.

Many people share this fate: Every three seconds, someone somewhere in the world begins suffering from dementia. German society is already the oldest in Europe and the second-oldest in the world. At the same time, the care system is completely overloaded, lacking both money and manpower. The nursing staff simply have no time to support and encourage each of Germany’s 1.6 million dementia patients individually.

 


ALL-ROUNDER

 

MOBILE: ichó can be used everywhere.

VERSATILE: All senses of the patients are activated. Ichó can be used outdoors, indoors, in individual therapy or in groups.

FAMILIAR: Users have no reservations about touching it.

THERAPEUTIC: If desired, ichó can collect usage data to make therapy more effective.

SECURE: All data and information is kept in strict confidence.

 


 

During his studies at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, Efthimiadis finds some allies: the “User Worlds” research project focused on using technical elements to support dementia therapy. Together with his fellow student Steffen Preuß and electronics engineer Mario Kascholke, he develops the final project: ichó. All three agree that their grandparents have dementia, and all three want to help. “‘Ichó’ is a Greek word and means ‘echo,’” explains Efthimiadis. At first glance, the white silicone ball, with its grooves and nubs, appears unspectacular, but there is a lot to it: It reacts to external influences, such as touch or movement. This not only keeps users from getting bored, but also promotes brain activity and memory performance.

ichó stimulates the senses

“People with dementia lose their physical senses over time. This leads to them having poor perception of their own bodies. In advanced stages, words also lose their content, and what was once learned is no longer accessible. So communication has to happen without words.” That is why ichó works by means of touch, sound, light and vibration. The ball can be programmed in different ways to create individual therapy programmes. These are suitable not only for dementia patients, but also for people with other cognitive impairments.

 


Video: The ichó-Therapy ball in use (German)


 

Their own grandparents also tested the ball. Steffen Preuß remembers how his grandmother took the ball in her hand and played it a song by her favourite singer, Roy Black. “My grandmother really started beaming, and swaying with the music,” he says. “It was such an enrichment to see how it could bring back her joy at being alive. I hadn’t seen her this active in a long time.”

In June 2016, the developers apply to the Social Impact Lab at Franz-Haniel-Platz and are accepted into the funding programme. Since then, ichó has taken off: from student project to start-up. The team has further developed the sphere, professionalised its production and founded a limited liability company. The prototype is continually tested with dementia patients in 20 different care facilities, and further improved. ichó works together with the joint regional association of North Rhine–Westphalia and the German Alzheimer’s Association, among others.

Multiple cooperation partners

Haniel gave the team many opportunities to present their idea to decision-makers, for example at the start-up trade fair at the management event Leadership Lab, or at the shareholders’ meeting. This has resulted in various partnerships. Among the partners are a married couple who are familiar with both the financial sector and the care sector. They subsequently worked out a financial plan with ichó. “I don’t think we would be ready today without the Social Impact Lab and Haniel,” Preuß sums up. Project management skills and contacts in the network were particularly important for the founders. “We weren’t sure beforehand whether we should first develop the product and then go public, or go to market with a prototype. Thanks to the Lab, we took the plunge.” Legal advice was also a deciding factor: “Before, we were given advice that was entirely wrong. Without the sound advice we are getting now, we would never have applied for a patent on our technology.”

Concrete talks are currently being held with investors and venture capital funds to conclude a financing round. This is happening much sooner than expected: “Development costs hundreds of thousands of euros. Better leave it to a large corporation” – that’s what they were told. The experiences with their grandparents help the three founders to literally stay on the ball at such moments. “There are founders who are purely economically driven, and then there are founders who are driven by ideas close to their hearts,” says Preuß. “For us, this is clearly a heart idea. That’s why we stick with it, no matter what the circumstances.” Thanks to the infusion of capital, the first 400 ichó balls can be produced and sold. Finding customers is no problem: “All of the balls have already been pre-ordered. We have long waiting lists of other interested parties.”

ANIMAL MEMORY

When ichó is passed to the next patient in the group, it plays alternating animal sounds. Patients have to guess which animal makes the sound, and whether it is a wild animal or a farm animal.

ORCHESTRA

Each participant in the group has an ichó ball that reproduces a different instrument sound. All balls communicate automatically with each other, so the group can play music, like a small orchestra.

STORIES

With the help of ichó, the different stations of a fairy tale – for instance, “The Frog Prince” – are recounted. The ball is the golden ball from the story, and the ball can be retrieved from an imaginary well by lifting it up. That’s when ichó starts to glow.

This popularity is also due to the attention that ichó received last year through a large number of awards. One of these was the prize for health visionaries, from Witten/Herdecke University. “The field of nursing research is usually very sceptical about digital solutions, which is why we are all the more pleased about it. This has enabled us to build a large research network.” The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy also selected the ichó team to represent Germany in Ideas from Europe, a competition initiated by the European Commission. This competition recognises ideas that provide solutions to global challenges. There they made it to the final – and thus belong to the ten most innovative start-ups from Europe.

Move to Fraunhofer institute

Recently, ichó moved from the university laboratory and the offices at Franz-Haniel Platz to the Fraunhofer Institute in Duisburg. Here, as part of a project grant, they can optimise the sensors and have access to technology experts and well-equipped laboratories. “This is an incredible support in the realisation of ichó,” says Preuß.

In the long term, however, the team would like to move back to Ruhrort, near the Social Impact Lab and Haniel. “We have deliberately registered our company headquarters in the Social Impact Lab because we want to promote the start-up culture in Ruhrort.” In five years, ichó wants not only to be financially independent, but also to develop other objects that help people who have cognitive disabilities. In addition, the founders want to set up their own funding programmes. Their grandparents would certainly be proud of them.


The founding team of ichó (from left to right): Mario Kascholke, Steffen Preuß and Eleftherios Efthimiadis