It’s not fun to be a kid diagnosed with scoliosis, a severe back condition that normally sets in just before puberty. In the worst cases, they have to wear a plastic brace for four years, 23 hours a day, just to stop the condition getting worse as their bodies grow.
Inevitably, says Ellen Su, cofounder of Wellinks, a startup developing a new kind of scoliosis brace, many kids balk at that sort of intensive treatment. They lie about how long they’ve had it on, and parents and doctors don’t know whether the brace is doing its job or not.
“The kids aren’t wearing the braces, and that leads to a higher risk of surgery,” she says. “Doctors and parents have no idea how long patients are wearing the braces, and that affects a lot of treatment decisions.”
Founded by three recent Yale graduates, Wellinks has invented a smart strap that fits to existing braces, providing more insight into how they’re being used, and helping patients, doctors, and parents have more productive relationships around scoliosis treatment. The 2-by-1.5-inch module links to a phone app that records usage and allows parents to set goals and offer their kids incentives.
“Parents can set it so it’s up to the kids to follow through. It’s less about parents monitoring and more about trusting the kids that if they want the incentives, they should wear it to the right level,” Su says.
The founders, who include Sebastian Monzon and Levi Deluke, himself a scoliosis sufferer, are currently manufacturing their first 100 devices and testing them with patients. If they win FDA approval, they hope to launch the product in the spring or summer of next year.
Roughly 8,000 people are forced into surgery each year because their scoliosis brace didn’t do its job, which costs insurers up to $1 billion.
“Surgery costs between $100,000 and $200,000,” Su says. “If we can show that we prevent surgeries, it’s in the interests of insurers to have a way to do that. They can save money, and not so many kids will need surgery.”