By Craig Lord
Yishel Khan has taught children with special needs all over the world, and noticed a disturbingly common problem in many places she went.
Children with varied special needs – such as autism, schizophrenia, tourette's and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and even including deafness and blindness – were being grouped together in all-ages classrooms, given a blanket treatment and approach to their educations.
The Pakistani-born, Dubai-raised entrepreneur came to Canada to pursue a higher education and expected to find a system without the flaws of misdiagnosis and underdiagnosis she had observed around the world.
Nope. It’s our problem too.
While these failures are not as dramatic in Canada, she saw children diagnosed with ADHD being given generalized medication without proper clinical testing, and she began to think of technological solutions to a problem she now knew to be worldwide.
Then, Yishel Khan launched DOT.
DOT is an Ottawa-based startup designing a device to monitor children already diagnosed with ADHD through headset sensors. These sensors read the child’s EEG brainwaves while they play through specially designed games on an app, sending data on the child’s responsiveness to the parent’s app, which then analyzes and displays the child’s progress and improvement, or lack thereof, in attentiveness or problem solving skills.
The goal of the device is to be an accessible supplement to clinical testing for ADHD.
The current diagnostic standard, Khan says, is a form from the hospital filled out by a teacher, which is then returned to a doctor in exchange for a drug prescription if enough boxes have been ticked off. The hope is that if the device goes mainstream, fewer children will be mistreated for ADHD, and those who are properly diagnosed will be able to track their development in a fun and interactive way.
Wellness vs medical devices
Regulations for getting a medical device to market can be restrictive, Khan says, with 10 years of clinical tests and trials before consumers can get their hands on a product. The key to getting DOT’s product on the market is in a convenient loophole that lets wellness devices – products with a medical bend but without substantiated claims to back them up – hit the market sooner, but without the medical community’s official seal of approval.
“That’s what it came down to for me. Do I want to wait 10 years to help a child who has ADHD? No,” says Khan.
DOT’s product is entirely based in research, Khan says, and uses clinically-validated algorithms to interpret the data collected through the device.
After trials on 100 patients, Khan says her device has 82-per-cent accuracy, compared to the 97-per-cent standard of clinical testing. She says the trade-off in accuracy comes from the fewer sensors used in DOT’s headset, but that the device is nonetheless useful for parents hoping to monitor or get a clearer picture of their child’s ADHD.
DOT has secured a vendor based in San Diego, and are hoping to get the product to market in May of this year. Though a price point hasn’t yet been established, the headset device will cost a few hundred dollars with a subscription-based fee for the accompanying app.
Five years down the line, Khan would also like to develop a version for medical professionals in hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices. The parent’s app could connect to their doctor’s version, which could provide up-to-date advice based on the data they’re reading on shared screens.
Khan says she usually receives an excited response from young medical professionals who see great potential in the device, but occasionally has a hard time winning over established doctors with decades of experience in the industry.
“Even today, you’d be surprised to see how many doctors don’t even believe in ADHD. That, to me, is pretty shocking,” Khan says, though she understands the rhetoric surrounding “overdiagnosis” of ADHD. She is, after all, trying to reduce that very problem as well.
Ottawa and beyond
DOT first launched in 2015 from a hackathon event in Montreal, where Khan was studying electrical engineering at McGill University. At the time, the device was actually geared towards autism, but debriefs with experts after the hackathon steered Khan and her team towards ADHD as a more manageable, segmented disorder to tackle.
Khan’s original team from that hackathon has been entirely overhauled, with a lack of funding at the root of the churn.
“Having a constant, stable team is very difficult... Not everyone is willing to take a plunge in something so risky,” Khan says. “(Funding) has been a nightmare.”
Khan has been prevented from accessing private loans and government funds like IRAP because, until now, she was not officially a Canadian citizen. She’s in the process acquiring IRAP now, and has a private loan for the company from Futurpreneur.
Despite the funding issues, she has managed to acquire a full-time team of three employees, far-flung as they may be. Khan is based in Ottawa, but she has onboarded a game developer based in Toronto and medical researcher based in Montreal.
DOT may soon find a boost in U.S. investment, as the company has been accepted to the Texas Medical Accelerator. The four-month program begins in February and will expose the startup to experts and medical professionals in the U.S., as well as potential customers and trial patients through the Texas Medical Centre.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things for us, to be able to get one-on-one customer feedback,” Khan says.
Though the program provides no financing, one of the primary goals is to introduce companies to potential investors. Khan says investment from venture capitalists south of the border flows a little bit more freely than from their Canadian counterparts.
“In the U.S. market, people literally are throwing money at you,” she says, recalling a significant amount of interesting following a showing in Boston that got DOT into the accelerator.
Beyond 2017, Khan has high hopes for her device in the developing nations where she taught and grew up. Her hope is that the device, which she has aims to adapt into other streams like autism and other cognitive disorders, becomes a resource-low alternative in regions where doctors and medical professionals are in high-demand.