Written by Carel Smit, a former patent attorney and entrepreneur, now author and speaker dedicated to IP awareness and education. More of his writing can be found at carelsmit.com.

Read part one of Carel's blog. 

Where were we? Ah yes, my physio was telling her idea and, as it happened, it was pretty awesome! She only had a raw idea, but she was wise enough to realise that it was worthless as just an idea. Her gut told her that if she told a large existing medical devices company about her idea, then they may be tempted to take her concept and make money off it while she languished and had to keep on fixing up stressed-out patent attorneys with dodgy necks in her practice. She also realised that she didn’t have the technical chops to build a prototype to see if it worked (or to approach funders), without the help of medical engineers – and all of these outside players being in the perfect position to rip off her idea.

Her idea was remarkably simple: she had picked up an incredible amount of experience in her physio practice in working with therapeutic lasers over the years.  These lasers generally produce light in the near infrared spectrum and are used in physiotherapy to help with sore muscles and a host of other issues relating to bad circulation, even issues with wound healing. She had worked with many, many patients with diabetic leg ulcers that were resistant to conventional treatment, so she hit the books to try to find a better solution. Her research into this had shown her that NASA had started experimenting in the early 1990s with techniques for healing wounds in astronauts, given that wounds do not heal in zero-gravity conditions. A small, bleeding wound could, in short, be a mission-aborting catastrophe. NASA had found that certain wavelengths of light made plants grow faster, so they wondered whether these same wavelengths could help in wound healing. 

Lo and behold, it did.

NASA got fantastic results using light in the red and near infrared range (NIR), but the devices they built were pretty cumbersome, awkward to use, and required a skilled operator. It also turned out that there were commercial companies that were making highly complex, laser-based machines to treat neck pain and sore muscles using near-infrared wavelengths, but it was extremely difficult to operate these machines given that there were a million buttons to push, pull or turn to set the duration, pulse length, and many other parameters of the light.  In addition, lasers are extremely fragile and they are immensely focused, and treating a small wound the size of a stamp could literally take half an hour or longer with a carer operating the machine for the entire time.

This is where it gets interesting… a few years earlier, there had been a story on news channels in South Africa about a new type of GPS tracking device that a team had developed for Khoi-San indigenous peoples to use in wildlife surveys.  Given that the Khoi trackers were largely illiterate, they had devised a system in which there was a button for each animal type with a picture of the animal on the button.  Each time a sighting was made of, say, an Oryx, the Khoi tracker would whip out the GPS device, and hit the dedicated “Oryx” pictogram button, thereby giving an indication of the whereabouts of the animals to the Department of Wildlife.

Because our machine was going to be as simple as possible and was going to be produced with the developing world in mind (and also for home use) we decided to incorporate similar design and operational thinking into our new device.  Instead of having to adjust a host of dials and buttons and requiring a skilled operator set all the parameters each time a new or old wound, or a muscle spasm or a dermal abrasion, or acne scarring had to be treated, we decided to pre-load the device with optimal parameters for each of the five or six main conditions that respond well to high-intensity infrared light therapy.  A user could then simply take the machine, aim it at a wound, and hit the appropriate button knowing that they were neither under-dosing nor over-dosing.

Yet all of this was still just an idea. Fortunately, my physio friend knew two medical devices engineers who had a small electronics company that fixed physio devices. They also made their own versions of the rather ubiquitous TENS machines, which treat muscle pain with electric stimulation. We decided to get them in and speak to them about the possibility of jointly building a machine.

But how would we be able to share our idea without them taking it for themselves? 

Read part three of Carel's blog. 

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25 January 2018