Avril Copeland, Co-Founder of Innerstrength Health
This interview is one of a series of inspirational women leaders in health technology being profiled as part of the Women Entrepreneurs category of the AXA Health Tech & You Awards programme.
Tell us about your business?
Innerstrength Health was founded by physiotherapist/exercise scientist, Avril Copeland and technologist, Greg Balmer in 2014. The concept evolved from Avril’s research and hands-on experience within the public hospital system in Ireland. As a rotational physiotherapist, Avril spent time supporting patients with various conditions.
A core skill of any health professional is building rapport and trust so that patients engage in treatment and therefore realise healthier outcomes. This beneficial relationship is built and continuously facilitated so long as a patient remains in hospital. As soon as a patient is discharged home or community care, this health-enhancing relationship is lost and is no longer facilitated by physical presence. While often times medically stable on discharge, many patients deteriorate physically and psychologically as soon as they return home due to this loss of support. Avril identified the opportunity to use technology to continue this support, albeit at a distance, so that patients can continue to improve, be signposted to relevant information and feel supported around self-management on what is often times a very vulnerable time on an unknown journey.
Innerstrength Health has built a technology to empower health professionals and patients. The Innerstrength technology enables health professionals to provide personalised programmes of education, exercise and support to patients who are at risk or currently living with chronic conditions. Patients receive their plan via the smartphone application and each day has the ability to review content specifically tailored for them, engage in targeted physical activity, track and monitor their progress in real time. The technology provides a channel of support, leveraging the health-enhancing relationship between health professionals and their patients to achieve healthier outcomes.
To date, Innerstrength Health, through its product TickerFit, has focused on supporting patients’ bot in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease, whereby GPs are prescribing TickerFit to at-risk patients, and then also in the secondary prevention supporting patients with their cardiac rehabilitation.
How would you describe your journey in health tech?
The idea for Innerstrength Health came from my research and hands-on experience within the public hospital system in Ireland. As a rotational physiotherapist, l spent time supporting patients with various conditions both on the wards and in outpatients. I left my full-time hospital work in 2013 and was lucky enough to meet a clinical entrepreneur in Ireland, Dr. Johnny Walker. Johnny was a super mentor and helped guide me in the first few years.
In 2014, my co-founder/CTO Greg Balmer came on board and ever since then with the help of the clinicians, patients and academics whom we work with, we have been developing the technology and business in Ireland and the UK. We have also been accelerated through programmes such as Wayra UK’s Velocity Health and are part of the current cohort of DigitalHealth.London.
What were the triggers and sources of inspiration that launched you on your journey? Did anyone particularly inspire you? (Man or woman)
A core skill of any health professional is building rapport and trust with patients so that you both can work together to recovery or support your patients come to terms with their new normal. This beneficial relationship is built and continuously facilitated so long as a patient remains in hospital, however, as soon as a patient is discharged, this health-enhancing relationship is lost and is no longer facilitated by physical presence. While often times medically stable on discharge, many patients can deteriorate physically and psychologically as soon as they return home due to this loss of support.
In public health, this happens all too often and it is something I found really difficult as a health professional. You spend sometimes weeks or months working together with your patients, making real progress and as soon as that patient is discharged, this progress can often time slip quite rapidly. This was especially true for the patients I met in the oncology and cardiology service. In recovery and rehabilitation, continuity of care is paramount and I knew technology could help facilitate this.
Do you think being a woman made it harder or easier as an entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur is tough no matter what your gender or background. While there is much hype around entrepreneurship in what we see and read, there are very few overnight successes. I think what makes it easier or harder is your level of resilience, your comfort with uncertainty and your ability to handle the rollercoaster that is being an entrepreneur.
What is your ‘special power’ that you use when you need to get around a challenge?
For me the most important way to get around a challenge is teamwork. I have always been part of a team whether it’s in work or sport. In a previous life I played international hockey, and over the last 15 years have competed in expedition adventure racing. In my adventure racing career, some of the challenges we have faced as a team have literally come down to life or death. Thankfully we have all survived so I’m a firm believer in the power teamwork when it comes to overcoming any challenge. Whenever there is a challenge in our business, myself and my team, during our team meetings thrash it out until we find an answer or a way of moving forward.
How do you relax? What do you do to recharge?
Exercise has and always will be a huge part of my life. Running, walking and biking are my escape.
What advice would you give a 14 year old girl knowing what you know now? What would you say to your younger self when you first started to think about "what do I want to be when I grow up
I recently gave a career talk in the secondary school I attended. Previous to the talk I did a WhatsApp poll of 12 of my closest school friends and asked them how many careers/jobs they have each had in the last 20 years since leaving school. The average number of careers was 2 and the average number of jobs was five. A lawyer that became a journalist, an engineer who became a GP, a scientist who became a physiotherapist…. The point is, at 14 years, most girls will have no idea about what they want to become. I would argue at 18 years, most will still not know. A large majority of our lives is spent working so whatever you do, find something you love, are passionate about and that you have an aptitude for. If you find something that fits that bill, for the most part, you won’t go too far wrong.
Do you think the future looks good for women in health tech? Why? Why not? What you think is exciting ahead? What exciting projects/innovations do you have in the pipeline?
I do think the future is bright for all entrepreneurs in health tech, who possess the drive and resilience to overcome the many barriers that are still in place. Health tech I believe it still in its infancy. There are some amazing technologies out there which can make a real difference to patients’ lives; however, we still have ways to go in getting these technologies into the hands of patients. Shaping our healthcare systems in a way that these technologies can thrive and support better health for all is no mean feat.
Along with TickerFit, last year we were awarded the SBRI Healthcare/NHS England contract to develop a solution to support children and young people living with long-term conditions. We are currently developing our solution, Hacka Health for Cystic Fibrosis, with our partners at Great Ormond Institute of Child Health. As an entrepreneur but also has a health professional, this project has been so rewarding as we get to work directly with these young people and their families to develop a solution that will hopefully make a real difference to the lives of many young people living with CF.