The importance of sitting comfortably
Hsin-Hua (Sheana) Yu (MA/MSc Global Innovation Design (GID), 2015) is the Founder and CEO of Aergo, a start-up that is developing an automated seating system, Aergo PS, that corrects the posture of young wheelchair users to make them more comfortable and independent.
After graduating Sheana was supported by InnovationRCA – the College’s centre for entrepreneurship and business incubation – to develop the initial design for Aergo into a business. In 2019 Sheana won a Women in Innovation award as part of Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation campaign. In 2018 she received an AXA Women Entrepreneur in Healthtech Award, an Enterprise Fellowship with The Royal Academy of Engineering and was featured as a top 10 innovative business in the Nesta Inventor Prize.
How did Aergo first come about?
Aergo was one of the projects I worked on during my final year at the RCA. It was the outcome of a module called ‘Machines for Living’. This was a collaboration with Treloar’s, a school for young people with physical disabilities. We were invited to observe the students’ day-to-day life in order to find out about their needs and get an understanding of how we could help them be more independent.
We realised posture is critical. A lot of children using wheelchairs rely on seating systems to keep them in an upright position so their spinal deformities won’t worsen, which would lead to complexities like organ compression, difficulties breathing and digestion or circulation problems.
As someone who’s suffered from scoliosis (curvature of the spine) I immediately wanted to create a solution that addresses poor posture. That was when I came up with the solution to use air cells that can sense pressure differences to map how you are seated, and then provide automated correction, so that your posture is continuously hugged into the best position possible.
Can you explain how the design works?
Aergo PS is a seating system with a network of built-in pressure sensitive air cells that are positioned at critical parts of the body to support the spine effectively. When a user receives the PS, their clinician will prescribe posture support levels that determine the ideal position to prevent any complexities. As the user shifts in position throughout the day, Aergo’s sensors would continuously monitor deviation from the prescribed position and automatically adjust inflation levels to keep the user in an optimal position.
What stage are you at with the business now, and what’s next?
We are in the process of commercialising Aergo PS and beginning production. We have a manufacturing partner in Taiwan – that’s where I’m from – who is also one of our shareholders. They are a strategic investor and are supporting Aergo’s supply chain management, production set up and quality assurance. To deliver Aergo PS to our target users, we are currently working with regional wheelchair equipment distributors in the UK to secure pre-orders. We are at the point where we have a CE certified and market validated USP. Now it’s about finding the right partner to get it to the right people.
Because of the pandemic we’ve introduced a remote posture management platform which means clinicians are able to access the Aergo PS device without visiting the user. They can remotely set up the right levels, monitor how they sit over time and prescribe different types of inflation to keep wheelchair users well supported. Because users are at a high risk to the virus, we are trying to bring more digital tools into this sector which has been traditionally mechanically heavy.
Had you always planned to set up a business?
My background is in product design, so I had no prior business experience. I always thought that I’d work for a consultancy or a big brand with a social cause. I never thought I would build my own medical device start-up. That’s one of the things that GID really shaped us to do; half of my class now have their own start-ups in different sectors. The training we had was very entrepreneurial. Every idea we proposed had to have a business case, we had to do financial projections, budgeting and then map out the partners that we would need in order to make that idea come to life commercially.The RCA also has great support like InnovationRCA, with links to the James Dyson Foundation and the Wates Giving Foundation. I pitched to all of them and received patent support from the James Dyson Foundation to file our first UK patent. We received grant funding from Wates Giving and seed funding from InnovationRCA that enabled us to kickstart Aergo as a business.
How has the design training you received at the RCA influenced your approach to design?
The nature of GID made me think beyond design. Before the RCA I did product design at Central St Martins and focused on using human-centred design to create new product solutions for clients. Often, you would get to the stage where you propose a great concept to the client, but you don’t really know what goes on afterwards. GID added that extra part.
It was about adapting the human-centred design approach to understanding customers and the market. By building up a strong understanding of the market, you become more aware of all the restrictions and create a robust framework to innovate. From my experience, this approach enables innovation to become more implementable commercially.
In addition, the international exposure during GID, learning how different cultures innovate and collaborate, has been eye opening. This experience certainly enabled me to think at a global scale when planning my business vision.
What do you think creativity and design thinking bring to solving challenges that engineering or science doesn’t?
Definitely the human-centred approach. The user always sits at the core of everything designers do. As a designer your solution tends to be easier to adapt and implement, because throughout the early research process you are so focused on what the user’s needs are that it shapes how you approach problem solving.
I’ve seen a lot of really complex innovations and often think, ‘how will your users operate such a complex system?’ They are not from an engineering background, they are not scientists, they are just a user who has a need. What designers are very good at is lowering the learning curve and making something more intuitive and closer to the user’s existing lifestyle.
Is there one thing that was most valuable that the RCA gave you, for what you are doing now?
It’s quite hard to think of just one thing! If it weren’t for the resources the RCA had, I probably wouldn’t have started Aergo. The fact that the RCA understands the difficulties that designers have in taking their visionary ideas to market, and then tailors their training programme to help shape them into businesses, is quite rare. Which is why it’s such a valuable experience for me to have studied at the RCA, it’s challenged and nurtured me to achieve more than I thought possible.
Find out more about MA Global Innovation Design and how to apply.