Q&A: HealthQ Technologies co-founder Dr Riaan Conradie

Technology and health experts have been flocking to read all about the world’s first open-source metabolic chamber launched in Stellenbosch, Western Cape. HumanIPO spoke to the co-founder of HealthQ Technologies, Dr Riaan Conradie, about how the project came about, the processes involved and the motivation to make it open source.

HumanIPO: The end product of HealthQ Technologies has certainly stirred a lot of interest. Was it always the aim to make it open source?

Conradie: HealthQ Technologies is a place where we bring many different skills (biological sciences, mathematical modelling, mathematical statistics, physics, engineering and functional design) together to test hot new and extremely disruptive technologies in the digital health ecosystem.

To test these technologies you rarely, if ever, get a benchmarking tool that is affordable and can do the job – so you have to think outside the box and design these tools as you go on.  One of these tools is our open source metabolic chamber.

As our primary focus is not to make and sell tools, but rather testing and industrialising new consumer solutions in the wellness space, we thought it might be a good idea to share our tool making skills with the greater digital health ecosystem.  This might stimulate other people to also work in this exciting field.

How easy was it to find and convince potential sponsors this was a worthwhile project?

The open source metabolic chamber project per se would not have interested sponsors if we did not sell a dream.

The technologies that we are testing, if proven to work, will be extremely disruptive and will change the digital health landscape completely.  The skills that we offer might be imperative to test and industrialize these technologies and this is the message that you have to convey to possible investors.  It might sound like a cliché by now, but it really is true that investors don’t just look at a team’s capabilities but also their ‘DNA’ and go-getter attitude.  For this reason, good leadership and company culture are extremely important.

How long did the project take from start to finish and at which point did you realise just how cheap you were going to make?

The metabolic chamber project only took us two months to complete from the day it was conceived. I’ve heard that similar projects took four years to complete elsewhere in the world.  We realised there were only about 20 of these chambers globally and that we would have limited support.

For this reason we looked at the science and analysed what was absolutely necessary to get an accurate and fully functional metabolic chamber.  We made a few quick pricing benchmarks that looked promising and immediately started to get our hands dirty.

An important question to ask when trying to build a specialized piece of equipment at an affordable price is: “In what consumer type technology have I seen the specific component or function that I need to build my specialized tool?” If you follow these trails you’ll likely be able to build something for a tenth of the price.

What kind of clientele are you expecting to make use of the facility?

We hope to engage with many global players that develop new and disruptive technologies.  We would provide the knowledge, expertise and tools to engage with them and help them to test and develop their technologies.  We are already engaging with the Stormers and Western Province Rugby to use them as test subjects.

Will the equipment be solely used for research by HealthQ Technologies staff or are there opportunities for outsiders, university students and academics for example?

There are certainly opportunities for outsiders. And we would like to establish a platform where students and academics can slot in with us to test technologies of interest and expand our interdisciplinarity and network.

How big and what different kinds of roles were there in the team producing the product?

The whole metabolic chamber was primarily built by a sub-group of our team consisting of four people.  Before the chamber was constructed we built a complete mathematical model of the whole metabolic chamber.  So the first real tool we used to construct the chamber was mathematics.

Then electronics engineers and a mechanical engineer respectively developed the electronic circuitry and pneumatics (gas pressure and flow regulation) according to the constructed mathematical model.

When the respective parts were built the whole HealthQ team helped to construct the chamber and get everything to interact smoothly.  Everyone used their DIY skills to get things working together.  It was a huge team effort.

How are you monetizing HealthQ Technologies?

We monetize our skills and contributions that we can make to test and industrialize technologies by making use of regular service agreements with global partners.  Obviously one of the by-products of this approach is that we become intrinsically involved in these projects and try and build long term relationships.

What is the mission for 2013? Do you plan to make more Metabolic Chambers or by making it open source is it over to the wider community to do that?

We’ll leave the building of more metabolic chambers up to the open source community.  Our mission will be to use this newly constructed tool to test new disruptive technologies as mentioned.  Watch this space!

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