Smart technology for stroke survivors – five questions with researcher Kai Yang
Senior Research Fellow Kai Yang loves market-oriented research and is innovating entrepreneurial applications for printed electronic textiles in her work with Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.
As part of Future Worlds’ Five Questions (5Qs) series, she shares how she’s developing wearable tech for use in stroke rehabilitation and offers spinout tips for fellow researchers.
What attracted you to become a researcher at the University of Southampton?
Like everyone else, I looked for where would be the best place to do my research.
I grew up in a beautiful town in the Shanxi province in China. While I was doing my MSc study at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, I was quite keen to study abroad. This wasn’t only because of the high reputation of degrees from overseas, but I wanted to experience a totally new environment and culture.
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship and travelled to the UK for a PhD investigating Reactive Dye Ink-jet Printing on Wool Fabric at the University of Leeds. I didn’t expect then that I would still be in the UK 11 years later!
Leeds was very good for textiles and – when I completed my PhD in 2009 – I started looking for new areas to build on this knowledge. Electronics was an emerging research area at the time and I knew that the University of Southampton had an impressive reputation in this field. The main reason I was drawn to Southampton was the opportunity to work with experts in this area and develop multidisciplinary research.
What are your research interests?
My research interest is wearable technology. To be more precise, I’m exploring applications for intelligent electronic textiles with a key focus on the healthcare and medical sectors.
Textiles are materials that people can use every day. Traditionally they were simply used to keep you warm, but through time they have also become items of fashion. As technology progresses we can actually do much more with these materials. For example, we can add electronic functions to a textile – giving enabling powers.
I’m focused on what the applications can be. The potential impact could be massive because everybody needs clothing. I want the outcomes of my research to be accessible to the end user so I do hope what I develop can have an impact on markets.
I like to be entrepreneurial and co-founded the University’s Smart Fabric Inks spinout based on key intellectual property from the ink/paste that I have developed.
What do you hope to achieve with the Smart Fabric Inks spinout?
Smart Fabric Inks is a spinout company supplying bespoke inks specifically for printed electronic textiles. I co-founded the company with some of my colleagues and am now one of the directors.
At first, we knew we had developed an excellent technology and were motivated to test it in the market. The business is a great vehicle to supply materials we develop to people that are interested. It’s unlikely they would be able to access it in any other way.
Smart Fabric Inks was founded in 2011 and we could soon see that the market was not ready at that time. We’ve gone on to generate a lot of interest since and it’s clear that the market is now growing really fast. The Future Worlds team kindly took some of our printed ink samples to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January, which has created a lot of potential leads.
You can find out more about Smart Fabric Inks in our Future Worlds Discover profile.
Wearable technologies are being applied in several sectors such as fashion, workwear and healthcare. How are you using this tech for stroke rehabilitation?
Every two seconds, someone in the world will have a stroke. There are more than 100,000 strokes in the UK each year, with more than 1.2 million stroke survivors alive in the UK. Strokes are also a leading cause of disability in the UK – almost two thirds of stroke survivors leave hospital with a disability according to statistics from the Stroke Association. More than half of stroke survivors have weak or no upper limb or hand movement.
Our project uses bespoke screen printable pastes to print electrode arrays directly onto everyday fabrics, such as those used in clothing. The resulting garments will have cutting-edge sensor technologies integrated into them. Advanced control algorithms will then adjust the stimulation based on the patients’ limb motion to enable precise functional movements, such as eating, washing or dressing.
We have secured £1.1 million from the Medical Research Council to bring together a multidisciplinary team to address stroke rehabilitation. We aim to bring this technology from a feasibility study with a proof of concept, to a working prototype which we can take to market.
The Smart Move project brings together expertise in functional materials, direct printing fabrication, control algorithms, wireless electronics, sensors, and end user engagement to deliver a personalised wearable device for home-based stroke upper limb rehabilitation.
What advice would you offer other academics who are considering commercialising their research?
There are a few things that I have learned through my experiences.
First, I would encourage people to start early when you have a good idea. You shouldn’t wait until you think you are ready. That moment will never come. You might feel that as an academic you could never do the business or marketing side of a startup or spinout, but the reality is that it will always be a learning process.
Second, you must make sure that you know the customer and know your market. If you’re going to develop a business around your technology then you’ve got to talk to the customers and the partners in the business.
Understand their needs. This is really important because it makes sure that you are developing what they need – that there is a good match. Develop a core network and do your preparatory work to move to market. If you can do this earlier, when the technology is ready the market is there.
Third, and probably the most important one for me, is make sure that you use the resources that are surrounding you. I’m really fortunate at the University of Southampton that Future Worlds has supported us and connected us with mentors. If there’s a better, shorter way to do it, then people can advise you on your direction and help you avoid mistakes.
Last of all, focus. Business is really difficult so you need to focus. This is a tricky one for me because I’ve had research projects and other important things I’ve needed to do. I’m trying my best to focus.