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Robot masseuse developed by start-up incubated at NTU Singapore starts operating at traditional Chinese medicine clinic

Photo credit: NTU

AiTreat, a start-up incubated by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, has developed a robot masseuse, called Emma, which stands for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation.

Emma has a highly articulated arm with soft massage tips that mimic the human palm and thumb that replicate the traditional acupoint massage known as “tuina”.

In its third generation, this commercial version of Emma is 35 per cent more compact than the first prototype unveiled last year. The soft massage tips made from silicon can be warmed up for better comfort. Emma also has advanced sensors and diagnostic functions which can measure the exact stiffness of a particular muscle or tendon.

The data collected from each patient is then sent to a server in a cloud, where an Artificial Intelligence (AI) will compute the exact pressure to be delivered during the massage procedure.

The AI can also track and analyse the progress of the patient, generating a performance report that will allow a physician to measure a patient’s recovery using precise empirical data.

The robot, which specialises in back and knee massages, started work on October 9 at NovaHealth TCM clinic, working together with her human colleagues, a physician and a massage therapist.

The official launch of Emma and the NovaHealth clinic today was attended by fellow entrepreneurs and industry leaders, including Mr Inderjit Singh, Chairman of NTUitive, NTU’s innovation and enterprise arm, and a member of NTU Board of Trustees.

Emma is placed in a customised room which has two massage beds. Located in between both beds, Emma can massage one patient while the physician does other treatments like acupuncture or cupping for the second patient, before switching over.

This arrangement ensures Emma is always working on a patient, maximising the productivity of the clinic.

“Emma is designed to deliver a clinically precise massage according to the prescription of a qualified TCM physician or physiotherapist, without the fatigue faced by a human therapist,” said Mr. Zhang, founder of AiTreat and NovaHealth, Mr Albert Zhang, who led the development of Emma. He is an alumnus of NTU’s Double Degree programme in Biomedical Sciences and Chinese Medicine.   “By using Emma to do the labour-intensive massages, we can now offer a longer therapy session for patients while reducing the cost of treatment. The human therapist is then free to focus on other areas such as the neck and limb joints which Emma can’t massage at the moment,” he added.

For instance, a conventional treatment package for lower back pain, consisting of a consultation, acupuncture and a 20-minute massage, would typically range from S$60 to S$150.

At NovaHealth, a patient could get the same consultation, acupuncture but with a 40-minute massage done by Emma and human therapist, all for $68.

Moreover, the manpower requirements to run a clinic has been significantly reduced from five people to just three, as Emma can do the job of two masseurs. Thus, Emma could help address manpower shortage and issues of consistency of quality in treatments faced in the healthcare industry. It could open up low-cost treatment alternatives in countries where healthcare costs are high, especially when compounded by an aging population with a growing demand for chronic pain management treatment.

Running in parallel to Emma’s work schedule is a research project to measure and benchmark Emma’s efficacy, comparing it to those of a professional TCM massage therapist. Once it is shown that Emma can improve the productivity and effectiveness of TCM treatments, Mr Zhang hopes it can be a business model for other clinics to follow in future.

Emma was developed under a joint research project, proposed by Mr. Zhang of AiTreat and Dr. Goh Chye Tee, Director of NTU’s Chinese Medicine Clinic and the Director of Biomedical Sciences and Chinese Medicine double degree programme.

Incubated at NTUitive, AiTreat now has a valuation of S$10 million, after completing its seed round funding, supported by Venture Capitalists from Singapore, China and the United States, including Brain Robotics Capital LP from Boston.

AiTreat is supported by the StartupSG-Tech grant, which funds up to $500,000, as well as SPRING Singapore’s ACE start-up grant and the Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-Up) grant.

The development of Emma is also on the TAG.PASS accelerator programme by SGInnovate, which will see Mr. Zhang tie up with overseas teams to target multiple markets such as in US and China.

Chief Executive Officer of NTU Innovation and NTUitive Dr. Lim Jui said that tapping on disruptive technologies such as robotics and AI to improve everyday life is what Singapore needs to keep its innovative edge.

"To remain competitive in the global arena, start-ups will need to tap on emerging technologies in order to create a unique product that can tackle current challenges, similar to what AiTreat has done," Dr Lim explained.

Mr. Inderjit Singh said, "There is great potential for Emma to be of service to society, especially as the population ages. The massage techniques of experienced and renowned TCM physicians can be reproduced in Emma, giving the public easier access to quality treatment. I look forward to future studies which could improve the efficacy of such massages, through the use of herbal ointments containing modern ingredients that improve wear and tear, such as glucosamine."

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