'I won't be able to walk away until I've created the change I want' - Tech firm chief Ciara Clancy out to beat Parkinson's
Physiotherapist Ciara Clancy developed her Beats Medical app to help treat patients outside of hospital and is now dedicating her life to assisting people with neurological conditions, writes Gavin McLoughlin
A few years ago Ciara Clancy went to a dinner where a lot was at stake. One of the dinner guests was going to get €20,000 for their business, and if it wasn't her, Beats Medical would probably be no more.
It was right before the deadline for submitting patents, and the company - which makes a smartphone app that provides therapies for people with Parkinson's and other neurological conditions - had run out of money.
"We hadn't raised a large round at that point and when it comes to fundraising in healthcare a lot is put on patents. They say without a patent it's very hard to raise, so I suppose I knew if we lost that, our ability to raise would be compromised," says Clancy.
People were already relying on the product so the stakes were higher than would be the case for most startups on the brink.
But Clancy won the prize and immediately sent a photo of the oversized novelty cheque to her patent lawyer - the patent was submitted.
Fast forward to today and now Clancy is looking to raise €3m in Series-A funding to help drive the company to the next level.
It's currently available directly from the app store to customers for €1 a day, but Clancy thinks business-to-business sales is what will really help scale the company quickly. The proceeds of the fundraising exercise will in large part be deployed towards growing that part of the business.
Devising corporate strategy is not something Clancy ever thought she would end up doing. From a young age she knew she wanted to enter the caring professions, and in her teens a volunteering stint with a local physiotherapist convinced her she wanted to help people struggling with Parkinson's.
As a keen dancer, movement was a source of much joy in her life, and she wanted to help people reclaim their ability to move.
She went to Trinity and studied physiotherapy - but by the time it came to hands-on work with patients, she was left unsatisfied.
"I really felt after all those years that I was falling short, that I wasn't doing everything I thought I could do. I thought I was going to help all these people with Parkinson's disease, and I was helping them - but it was on such a small scale. I was helping them in hospitals and they were going home and the symptoms were persisting."
The vast bulk of the care for Parkinson's and other neurological conditions takes place in the home and so Clancy wanted to develop something that would work there.
So-called "metronome therapy" (where patients are asked to respond to a beat to train the brain to work more efficiently) had been shown to be effective but it was only available in hospital because it had to be individually tailored every single day.
So Clancy went about building the research that would enable her to develop algorithms for individualised prescriptions. Once that problem was solved, building a business became the challenge. There was just one difficulty - she had no business experience.
"Growing up, there were absolutely no plans to go into entrepreneurship. I had no interest in business. People say they set up mini-businesses and lemonade stands and things like that. I did none of that," says Clancy.
She decided to build an advisory board that would enable her to leverage the experience of others. Telecoms entrepreneur Sean Melly - also an early investor - joined, as did Trinity physiotherapy professor Emma Stokes and Philips online sales veteran Graham Merriman.
All of this was designed to help deliver Clancy's vision of making Beats the number one provider of non-intrusive solutions for neurological conditions. Among its functions are speech and language therapies, dexterity exercises, and tailored metronome therapy to help improve patients' movement.
One of the biggest challenges, Clancy says, has been to convince people to embrace digital health products.
"Beats Medical didn't look like a pill. It didn't look like how you treat Parkinson's disease. We had people with Parkinson's who this was helping who said: 'Don't make us wait for the HSE to cover it, we want this now.'
"So we started selling direct to customers - and now we have users in 44 countries through that selling.
"But hospitals and insurers, particularly across the States, are embracing digital health like never before in the last 12 months, which has very much started to flip our business model from a B2C to a B2B model, which is one of the reasons why we're raising the Series A."
She says she has been surprised by the power of B2C in helping to build sales.
"We do go to health professionals first but in countries where we don't have a presence, what's been very powerful is one individual, telling others, who tell the neurologist and then health professionals prescribe from there.
"The B2B allows us to have much more significant impact in a much more rapid way. In a sense it's also much more accessible for individuals as well.
"If it's covered by their insurer or their major hospital scheme, you can have thousands of people coming in to the same hospital group, getting on the system and off they go. It is a potentially more sustainable model for an impact business to be B2B."
As the company grows, the pressure on Clancy grows and she wants to make sure that she continues to develop her skills as a leader and chief executive, even as a scaling business creates more and more demands on her time.
Personal mentors have included Intel vice-president Margaret Burgraff and Keelings boss Caroline Keeling.
Important too, says Clancy, is fitting in time for physical exercise which helps keep her fit for the demanding job of running the business. Surfing, hip-hop music, rock climbing and, perhaps surprisingly, breakdancing are among the hobbies she pursues during her time off.
What also helps provide sustenance is the positive feedback from customers who have used the app.
The woman who could write Christmas cards for the first time in years, for example, or the man who managed to walk from one end of Britain to the other. This, says Clancy, is the well from which she draws energy.
In its last financial year the company lost almost €220,000 but Clancy says the last two quarters have been the company's best thus far.
"This is in line with much of the growth that we've been taking. The previous year we were developing products for other neurological conditions.
"With technology it's never about standing still so it is very much about taking that next step to push the boundaries of what you can achieve - trying to push for more rather than let one thing do well."
As for the future, Clancy just wants to make sure the business fulfils her vision of helping as many people as possible.
A trade sale or a partnership might make more sense than an IPO in achieving that vision, but nevertheless Clancy believes it's important to build a business that has the potential to go public off its own bat.
As well as Parkinson's, the company's other areas of clinical focus are cerebral palsy, dyspraxia, stroke and multiple sclerosis.
"Neurological conditions are so undermanaged and they're going to become a bigger and bigger problem ... this challenge isn't going to change, it's just going to get worse.
"I believe that Beats Medical will be staying in the neurological space because you could just keep going. There are multiple neurological conditions that require treatment for speech, mobility, fine-hand movements, etc."
It's a challenge that Clancy won't walk away from until she feels satisfied she has made a difference.
"I feel like I could dedicate a lot of my life to helping people with neurological conditions. I went into that for this reason and I feel like for the future I want to play a role in making sure that happens.
"I probably won't sit happy until I know that happens. I wouldn't be able to walk away without making sure that the change we want to create has happened.
"I wanted this impact since I was quite young, and that's the reason I went into business."
Founder and chief executive, Beats Medical
PhD Neurosurgery Outcomes, Trinity College Dublin
Postgraduate certificate Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Trinity College Dublin
BSc Physiotherapy, Trinity College Dublin
Physiotherapist, Caritas Convalescence
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