First-aid for posture habits that tame back pain

Scott Johannes, Katrina Carriveau, Jackie Beranek, Marie Wavrunek, Heather Tomeo, Ying Xiong: graduate students, physical therapy

When Scott Johannes learned that a staggering $50 billion is spent every year to treat back pain in the United States, the physical therapy doctoral student saw an opportunity.

“Back pain sufferers are one of the largest groups of patients seeking physical therapy services today,” Johannes says. So he began to imagine a device that would streamline treatment. Back pain patients would wear this device for several hours or days while it collects data about their body movements, pinpointing postures and movements that trigger pain.

In 2012, Joahnnes entered an early version of this idea in UWM’s very first Student Startup Challenge (SSC). His idea ranked among the top 10 ideas in the competition, but he didn’t receive funding, so Johannes went back to the proverbial drawing board.

He convinced his professor and classmates in the College of Health Sciences’ physical therapy research practicum to adopt his device as one of the class projects. The group brainstormed ideas about how to improve it, and ran a small study to see if those ideas might work.

That same semester, Johannes, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, entered a business accelerator program designed to help veterans become entrepreneurs. Known as Vetransfer, the program put him in touch with clinicians who critiqued the idea, and mentors who provided supportive coaching.

By the end of the semester and the stint with Vetransfer, five of his fellow physical therapy doctoral candidates agreed to join Johannes in moving the product forward: Katrina Carriveau, Jackie Beranek, Marie Wavrunek, Heather Tomeo and Ying Xiong.

The team successfully entered their device – known as Augment-H, for “Augment-Human” – in this year’s SSC. They’re currently developing a prototype with the help of UWM students in the engineering “Product Realization” class.

So far, Augment-H consists of waterproof sensors that attach to the patient’s back with medical-grade adhesive, Carriveau explains.

The sensors record the patient’s movements, including the times when they, for example, slump in a chair or lift a box incorrectly. The sensors can also capture whether patients have too much or too little mobility in their lower back, information that could inform treatment.

The sensors communicate with a receiver placed in the patient’s back pocket, and that data downloads onto an app on the physical therapist’s smart phone or tablet.

Once the prototype is complete, the team will gather baseline data by testing it on volunteers. They’ll use that information to further streamline the prototype.

The Augment-H team manages to meet in person about once a month, usually at Johannes’ apartment near campus. The rest of the month they stay in touch with project management software and email. The launch process takes energy and focus, and these students are already busy working toward their degrees.

“Since starting work on this project, I’ve become addicted to espresso drinks,” Carriveau says.

Johannes is grateful for his caffeinated colleagues. “There’s no way I could do this thing on my own,” he says. “You need friends in the process, people to go through the sweat equity with you.”

He also feels that his professors have fostered the team’s entrepreneurial instincts.

“The physical therapy faculty is very good at challenging us, and instilling in us that we’re supposed to be pushing the envelope,” Johannes says. “We’re supposed to be the champions of things like this.”

Five specialists in physical therapy, designing such equipment without an engineering hand was “an uphill learning curve,” says Johannes. “You just have to have the interest and drive.”

Update: The team is now looking at ways to improve the prototype by looking at what competitors are offering. They have contracted with an electrical engineer to suggest alternate designs for the posture sensors on their device.