Volymi gives wheelchair users independence and confidence

Trinity Launchbox start-up Volymi has developed a system that gives independence back to paralysed wheelchair users.

The Volymi system measures the volume of the users’ catheter bag and sends valuable information to the user such as hydration levels and the current capacity of the bag. This reduces the anxiety of the user and the level of external care they need.

The company was one of 10 start-ups that took part in the LaunchBox accelerator. LaunchBox, in partnership with Bank of Ireland, and managed by experts in Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workspace at Trinity College Dublin, provides mentorship, funding, access to alumni and investors, and the ideal collaborative environment to launch new start-up ventures.

“For the first time, they don’t have to feel anxious about the bag and expose themselves to infections by emptying the bag unnecessarily”

This is the eighth year of LaunchBox, but the first year that the programme is running online.

Sensor and app

“The start-up was formed to create a solution for a problem familiar to many paralysed people,” explained co-founder Sean McMahon.

“People living with a paralysis for example due to a spinal cord injury have to use a urinary drainage bag throughout the day and night which limits their independence. The drainage bag is often strapped to the user’s lower leg, out of reach and out of sight under a pant. The bag has to be emptied on a regular basis by the user or by the user’s personal assistant.

“Currently there is no other solution to know the level of the bag other than visually check it, which is impossible for many people living with a paralysis. Detaching and emptying the bag exposes the drainage tubes to air, which increases the risk of the user getting urinary tract infections (UTI). Due to the high cost of UTIs to the healthcare system it is crucial to empty the bag only when necessary and therefore to know the condition of the bag.”

Volymi’s core product is a smart urinary drainage bag system that consists of a removable sensor and a mobile application.

The users can attach the sensor to the drainage bags they are already using. The drainage bag will be used the same way as they normally are, but now the users are able to track the liquid level in the bag on their smartphone.

“For the first time, they don’t have to feel anxious about the bag and expose themselves to infections by emptying the bag unnecessarily,” explained co-founder Molly O’Mara.

Engineering tomorrow

The four founders of Volymi are Sean McMahon, Molly O’Mara, Juha Vuorenalho and Aleksi Salmi.

Sean and Molly just finished their Master’s in mechanical engineering in Trinity College. Juha and Aleksi are doing their second year of a Master’s in computer science and mechanical engineering in Aalto University in Finland.

“Starting a company was a natural progression after the university module where the project was initially started had ended,” O’Mara said. “Sean and Juha have experience in e-commerce so being an entrepreneur is not completely unknown to the team. The good support from peers and getting into the TCD LaunchBox startup accelerator program gave a green light for proceeding with the project for potential commercialisation.”

To be agile, McMahon says it is a combination of making use of cloud technologies as well as teamwork tactics. “The most used tools are Drive, Slack, Gantt charts and Telegram, which works surprisingly well for quick communication. Recently we adapted a new tool called Basecamp for task delegation and record keeping. We are also implementing SCRUM in the future.”

From idea to outcome

O’Mara believes Ireland offers a positive starting ground for startups.

“There are numerous grants and funds for startups where no equity is being taken. Aside from funding, the startup ecosystem in Ireland also provides valuable knowledge and guidance regarding the necessary steps to take to develop an entire business from just an idea.

“Currently we are not raising any funding yet, but we are planning to do so by the end of this year, or early 2021.”

She explained that one of the biggest lessons upon starting up has been about talking to customers.

“One of the biggest lessons has been that it is never too early to talk to the users. Involving the users as much as possible early on increases the likelihood that the solution answers an existing demand.

“Another important lesson was to make sure the business model has enough potential for growth. It sounds very simple, but it is easy to forget as an engineer, when most of the time has to be put into the research and development of high-resolution prototypes. In our case, the customer focus had to be reworked and was changed from selling business-to-customer to selling business-to-business.”

Their advice for other founders is to not be afraid to pivot their product or service.

“It is natural for a start-up to shift the initial idea as more information is gained throughout the startup’s early stages. Even the greatest innovations might fail if, for example, the business plan is not well thought-out,” said O’Mara.

Pictured at top (from left): Aleksi Salmi, Molly O’Mara, Sean McMahon and Juha Vuorenalho

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 22 September, 2020