Anita’s company wants to forge the link between researchers and facts
Researchers constantly need to collect and analyse statistics and data. This requires tools that are often developed specifically for each project, at great expense. Former Halmstad University researcher Anita Sant’Anna has, together with her companion Axel Wolf, started a company to develop a tool to make this both easier and cheaper, avoiding the need to send large amounts of valuable and sensitive data to Apple or Google or any of the other global giants.
Much is being said about e-health and how Sweden should be at the forefront, but there is a big gap between the potential and the reality. We want to participate in setting a new standard for how data is collected and analysed, so that healthcare acquires knowledge that can then provide opportunities for development.
Twelve years have passed since Anita Sant’Anna left the island city of Florianópolis on the east coast of Brazil for the much smaller city of Halmstad and the university here.
“After taking an engineering degree at the university at home in Florianópolis, I was looking at different places around the world for a position as a doctoral student. I wanted it to focus on biotechnology and life science, and with the prospect of good economic conditions. A friend of mine in Stockholm told me about Halmstad. I applied and after a few months I was informed that I’d been offered the position.”
Research on motion analysis
Anita Sant’Anna focused her research on the analysis of how we move. Using sensors, she captured data on movements and developed systems to analyse them. Among other things, Anita Sant’Anna collaborated with a laboratory in the United States that worked with people suffering from Parkinson's disease. She defended her doctoral thesis, “A Symbolic Approach to Human Motion Analysis Using Inertial Sensors: Framework and Gait Analysis Study”, at the School of Information Technology at Halmstad University in 2012.
Anita Sant’Anna stayed at the university as a postdoc at the Centre for Applied Intelligent Systems Research (CAISR) at the School of Information Technology, and she enjoyed being in Halmstad and at the university.
“I jumped around a bit between the subjects and worked with smart electricity distribution networks, among other things, and then continued to study motion analysis.”
For some time, Anita Sant’Anna was coordinator for the health technology application area within CAISR. She has also worked for the Centre for Health Technology Halland (HCH) as research coordinator.
Data must provide insights
“Among other things, I have worked on how we can help people by learning more about how people move in daily life, how smart homes can support us, and how we can use different forms of technology to interact with people. Today it is easy to collect and measure a lot of things, but the big question is how we can process the data we collect and identify what is relevant. It’s one thing to have a large amount of data – and another to gain insights from it”, says Anita Sant’Anna.
In collaboration with Lund University, Anita Sant’Anna worked on monitoring persons with osteoarthritis, who often have problems with pain and can have difficulty managing everyday life. Among other things, her task was to collect and analyse data on how they move, especially during working hours.
Expensive to develop the technology
“I was struck by the scale of the challenge, in regards to the limited financial resources available to you as a researcher, to develop software and technology to allow you to collect the data you need. It made me frustrated. Either you are limited by the tools available, or you find that it becomes very expensive.”
Another problem is that the next round of researchers, who may want to follow up on an earlier study, may not have access to the same tools and are then forced to devote new research resources to obtaining technical solution. The frustration led to Anita Sant’Anna collaborating with Axel Wolf, a research nurse at the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg. They started developing their own tools for collecting and analysing data and started the company ResearchOnTheGo.
Quickly create a survey and an app
“We have created a generic system for a researcher to quickly, easily and inexpensively create the survey or app needed for a project and to then get support to analyse the data collected. Our technology also makes it very easy to reproduce previous studies. Similar systems are available in the United States, but there are challenges to using them in the European market.
“There are many regulations in the EU that don’t exist in the United States, such as the General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR. Our system is adapted for researchers in Europe”, says Anita Sant’Anna.
One important aspect that Anita Sant’Anna and Axel Wolf have included in their work is the option of complete anonymity for participants in different studies.
Anonymity for participants
“For example, we avoid using the various technical solutions developed by giants such as Apple or Google. A phone or smart watch sends a lot of data back to the manufacturer. We want to be able to guarantee complete anonymity for the people participating in a research project.”
For Anita Sant’Anna, Halmstad University has been a perfect starting point for research, and now for developing the new system.
“It is an educational institution that has been successful in developing good relationships with the business sector. There are people here with very good networks, providing us with contacts that would have otherwise been difficult to get.”
Anita Sant’Anna and Axel Wolf started their company within the framework of the HighFive business incubator and they have also received good assistance from HH Innovation.
“It’s been great. Among other things, we have received assistance from Hans-Erik Eldemark and HH Innovation to apply for verification funding in order to test our ideas. This has allowed us to appoint a consultancy firm for market analysis.”
Collaboration with Halmstad researchers
One study that the new company is working on is a collaboration between Halmstad University and Region Halland that deals with technology to help patients with high blood pressure to take their medication. The research project is called Improving Medication Adherence through Person-Centered Care and Adaptive Interventions (iMedA). The goal of iMedA is to improve medication adherence through an AI agent that supports patients in their daily lives. Such an agent needs to understand key individual factors that make a person skip their daily medication – whether it is a lack of knowledge, insufficient motivation, a worry about side effects or simple forgetfulness. The project leader for iMedA is Slawomir Nowaczyk, Professor in Machine Learning at Halmstad University.
“The app developed by Anita allows us to efficiently and reliably collect different kinds of information in order to obtain this understanding. It is very flexible, giving us full control over what questions we should ask the patients, and when. A question can for example be ‘did you take your pills today?’. Every time a patient answers, we can deliver them an intervention tailored to their needs”, says Slawomir Nowaczyk and continues:
“I'm confident that the kind of a system that Anita’s company has developed can be useful in other research projects, not necessarily limited to healthcare. In fact, we have recently been discussing the need for more data about people's travelling patterns in one of our mobility smart city projects, and we might end up collecting some of it using the same system and app as in iMedA”.
Desire to develop healthcare
ResearchOnTheGo is currently working to attract the interest of more researchers and research projects.
“We now need more good examples of how our system can be used and what benefits it can bring. This involves both research projects on the one hand, and small and medium-sized companies that manufacture medical equipment on the other.”
Anita Sant’Anna has visions of being able to participate in and develop healthcare in Sweden and around the world.