Gold Coast healthtech company PainPod wants to help people suffering from chronic pain
Affecting around one in five Australians, the total cost of chronic pain in Australia in 2007 was estimated at $34.3 billion, or almost $11,000 per person with chronic pain.
While many suffer in silence, the effects on people can be debilitating both physically and mentally as effective pain relief can be difficult to find.
Looking to help is PainPod. Founded by Rick Rowan and Tom Ivascanin on the Gold Coast, the company has created an electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) or neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) device that looks to moderate and manage pain levels through, well, as the name suggests, electrical nerve and muscle stimulation.
Rowan first came to the business out of personal need: formerly a real estate professional, Rowan spent more than 15 years suffering from a chronic lower back problem before he began looking for a better solution.
“Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t leave the bed for days,” he said.
“I relied on prescription painkillers and often took far more than was recommended and mixed them to try and get relief from the pain.”
This prompted Rowan to begin looking into electrotherapy and biomedical medicine to understand the difference between the two and how each method might be able to help with the pain.
“I also wanted to know why some people responded extraordinarily well while others were getting little benefits,” Rowan explained.
“What we saw was there was not a lot of science behind the consumer products. I saw an opportunity there to develop a design formulations that were more specifically targeted for relief the many different types of pain, chronic and acute.”
Rowan then joined up with Ivascanin, who had first discovered transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and EMS devices on a trip to the US. He then came back to Australia with the distribution rights for a particular device, and began working to develop it further, creating the PainPod.
As Rowan explained, they began by identifying existing scientific research to help PainPod create its own treatment formulations, or the frequency treatment modes in the PainPod device. The use of scientific research has seen PainPod approved on the register of Therapeutic Goods Australia and FDA-listed.
“PainPod has reviewed thousands of studies to develop our specific formulations. Our bioengineers and research teams are continually adapting to the latest technology so we can ensure everyone can experience a non-invasive, drug-free system of pain relief and recovery,” Rowan said.
So how does it work?
As Rowan explained, the PainPod delivers gentle bio-electrical nerve stimulation pulses through the skin to nerve endings in the affected area, blocking the pain signals from travelling to the brain. The user simply places pads attached by wires to the devices to the affected areas on their body, and selects which ‘mode’ or type of frequency they prefer.
With the foundation of the product – the science behind how it works – taken care of, the big challenge for PainPod initially was manufacturing.
“The quality of the hardware has never been an issue; it’s more about compactness, fitting into people’s lives and making it easy to use. If it’s not easy to use, people won’t use it,” Rowan said.
“We found it difficult to convey what we wanted, particularly in the areas of software with manufacturers and the engineers,” Rowan said.
The development process took almost two years, with the startup going through seven or eight prototypes before settling on the first PainPod device.
Once this was done, the startup began looking to sell; as Rowan explained, PainPod believes its target market in terms of anyone affected by pain or injuries is “virtually limitless”, excluding only those that medically can’t use such a device, such as people with a pacemaker.
PainPod brought on its first customers through experiential events, such as trade shows and trials at shopping centres.
“We wanted to see the customers experience the product first hand in order to know whether they were having a good experience and they could see the effectiveness of the product first-hand,” Rowan said.
“We also found that word of mouth and publicity helped get customers on board also.”
As word of mouth spread, PainPod began getting requests from those interested in becoming distributors, with the device now for sale through select physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, and doctors. It also counts a number of Olympians and AFL club Collingwood as its ambassadors.
PainPod has already created the third generation of its flagship device, the PainPod 3, which is priced at $479. It has also expanded its range to create a PainPod Mi, or mini device, bio gloves, socks, and sandals, and accessories.
The company has also expanded internationally, with growth in the US, the UK, and Europe in its sights. PainPod has been applying much of the same strategy it used in Australia to these overseas markets, promoting the product at shows and events.
“The biggest lesson we are taking overseas is putting the business systems in place to be able to effectively look after the infrastructure systems. Now we have built and implemented strategic customer engagement and retention management systems,” Rowan said.
“As well as the customer facing systems we are better prepared to scale as a global business by way of backend management and processes.”
According to Rowan, PainPod’s annual turnover currently tops $2 million. As the business continues to grow globally, Rowan said he wants to move PainPod into a “higher level” of interactive technology.
“The customer can start to receive data from the device and they can potentially share that data with their health care professional.”