Women-led startup innovations in pregnancy monitoring, clinical trials supported by $750,000 University investment

Posted: 16 March 2023

The University of Melbourne will provide pre-seed investment to support two innovative female-founded healthcare startups, innovative at-home pregnancy monitoring start-up Kali Healthcare, and clinical trial participant recruitment start-up Torch Recruit.

Kali Healthcare, co-founded by University of Melbourne Associate Professor Fiona Brownfoot, has developed a small wearable device and sensor patch that accurately picks up the baby’s heart rate, improving the ease and access to pregnancy monitoring for regional patients. Tragically, over 2000 Australian families are impacted by stillbirth each year, claiming the lives of 1 in every 130 pregnancies.

Currently, pregnant women at high risk must travel to hospital for ultrasound monitoring to measure the fetal heart rate to learn if their baby is in distress. The ultrasound sensor must be placed directly over the baby’s heart, with women often confined to bed during monitoring sessions and in labour. The high cost and staffing requirements of ultrasound equipment means it is only available in large tertiary hospitals, or with long wait times at smaller hospitals.

Associate Professor Brownfoot, who also works as an obstetrician at the Mercy Hospital and Epworth Freemasons said: “At Kali Healthcare we have developed a new fetal monitoring system. It consists of a small wearable device and sensor patch, that accurately picks up the baby’s heart rate. It is simple to apply and opens the possibility of monitoring at home during telehealth consults. Also, it will allow women to be active in labour, without the fetal heart rate dropping out, which is a game changer for our patients, midwives and obstetricians,”

Kali Healthcare co-founders Dr Emerson Keenan and Professor Marimuthu Palaniswami said that with a $500,000 pre-seed investment from the University of Melbourne and ongoing support from development partners, the fetal heart rate monitoring technology will be accelerated into the pivotal clinical trial phase by next year.

A new clinical tool helping doctors automatically identify eligible patients for clinical trials and improve clinical trial participant diversity has been created by Torch Recruit, founded by University of Melbourne Associate Professor Jo-Anne Manski-Nankervis.

Torch Recruit was developed in the University of Melbourne Department of General Practice to improve the rates and diversity of patients enrolled in clinical trials vital for developing new medical treatments. Traditionally, recruiting participants to clinical trials takes many months, and more than 80 per cent of trials fail to enroll enough patients.

Western Health and the University have committed $250,000 each in pre-seed investment funding for business development and expansion of the network of general practices working with Torch Recruit.

Associate Professor Manski-Nankervis said: “Recruiting for clinical trials is a massive problem, and we saw an opportunity to address it by bringing more trials to the community, including regional and rural Australia. This strategy will address the delays that can result from not being able to translate research into practice if you’re not recruiting patients on time.

“Australia is an attractive venue for clinical trials and this is a growth area. If we are attracting more trials, then we need to ensure we can deliver on recruitment. We see ourselves as playing a key role in providing infrastructure to support clinical trial recruitment in community settings, which is where the majority of Australians receive their medical care.”

Both Associate Professor Jo-Anne Manski-Nankervis and Kali Healthcare’s Associate Professor Fiona Brownfoot are supported by the University’s Women’s Founders Network, established to empower and connect women in the University community interested in pursuing a start-up.

“The Network provides a supportive environment where women founders can discuss their successes and failures, the lessons learnt and the particular challenges that women face in getting their start-ups going,” Associate Professor Manski-Nankervis said.

University of Melbourne Executive Director, Innovation and Enterprise Heather St John, said that while there are women-specific challenges facing female entrepreneurs, important progress is being made to improve founder diversity.  Ms St John said: “Start-ups have traditionally been skewed towards male founders and the barriers are multifaceted for women founders, particularly at the early pre-seed stage.

“The University recognises that early investment and support is critical to ensure our female founders are well positioned to develop and progress their ideas into an investment ready startup,” Ms St John said.

These investments are part of the University’s ongoing commitment to supporting the creation of significant new entrepreneurial opportunities for our world-class researchers, students and alumni as well as medical research institutes and hospitals affiliated with the University of Melbourne.

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