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Maryanne Harris and Daniel Hillyer. Credit: RoboFit

A couple’s journey to revolutionise neurological rehabilitation

A key challenge as we grow our business is navigating the tight labor market, making sure as we grow to new sites we are working alongside team members that align with our culture and are passionate about helping explore what’s possible.

Maryanne Harris, Director at Robofit.

Maryanne Harris and Daniel Hillyer’s journey to create RoboFit, Australia’s first neuro-responsive exoskeleton and robot-powered therapy centre, began with a tragic event that altered their lives forever.

In 2010, Daniel suffered a balcony collapse that left him with quadriplegia, a diagnosis that shattered his dreams of becoming a chef. Doctors told him he would never move from the neck down, but he and Maryanne refused to accept this devastating prognosis.

“RoboFit has a deeply personal beginning for both of us,” explains Maryanne. “Dan was working as a chef, and I was studying exercise science at UOW when tragedy struck in May of 2010. Dan was involved in a balcony collapse that left him with a spinal cord injury, and he was told he wouldn’t have any movement from his neck down, with limited arm function.”

“Following a 10-month stay in the hospital, we began our journey of looking at what options were available for therapy,” continues Maryanne. “Dan joined a neuro-specific gym, and we also started looking globally as there was limited innovation taking place in Australia. We were seeking something that would bring us to hope that Dan could regain his independence.”

“We travelled to America, Europe, Israel, and Japan,” says Maryanne. “When we came across Cyberdyne, we knew that it aligned with our values, based on their philosophy with technology on human enablement and empowerment. After a number of visits to Japan with Dan using the device as part of his rehabilitation journey, we couldn’t wait to bring it back to Australia.”

A couple’s journey to revolutionise neurological rehabilitation

“We saw huge improvements in my standing balance, walking gait, and speed in just 21 days of 2 hours per day training in the exoskeleton using a treadmill and overground practice,” says Daniel. 

“I was able to walk 10m supported prior to my HAL training in Japan. After our experience of travelling to Japan multiple times to access these devices because there wasn’t anything like it in Australia, we knew it was something we had to do and bring the devices here to Australia for our community to access in a community-based setting.”

With Maryanne’s background in exercise science, they began to explore the future of rehabilitation and discovered promising technology from Cyberdyne, a Japanese company. Their curiosity led them on a 10-year-long journey that took them to labs and conferences around the world and culminated in the creation of RoboFit.

“At RoboFit, we work closely with Cyberdyne, who is the manufacturer of the neuro-responsive exoskeleton,” explains Maryanne. “Professor Sankai invented the technology with a focus on human empowerment and assisting society in dealing with ageing populations and the conditions that impact us as we grow older.”

“On our first visit to Japan in 2013, Dan underwent his first three-week block with Cyberdyne,” says Maryanne. “They had been established since 2008, and their devices are unlike others in the market.

“They have both autonomous mode, which moves for the wearer, and the added feature of bioelectric signals. This provides a neuro-feedback loop to the brain, encouraging and rewarding movements desired as part of someone’s therapy and focusing on improving functional capacity.”

‘Incorporating tech alongside traditional interventions’

Maryanne states they believe in incorporating and adopting technology to help innovate alongside traditional interventions. They are committed to staying up to date with technological advancements to ensure that their clients receive the best possible care and support.

Maryanne also recognises the importance of traditional interventions in building and improving capacity. Therefore, RoboFit takes a multidisciplinary approach to its work, bringing together experts from various fields to create a comprehensive and personalised treatment plan for each client.

“We understand that technology has the potential to revolutionise the way we approach rehabilitation and therapy, and we are committed to staying at the forefront of these advancements to ensure that our clients receive the best possible care and support.

“By integrating technology into this plan, we are able to complement and enhance the benefits of traditional interventions, allowing our clients to achieve their goals more quickly and effectively. 

“We believe that this approach is key to helping individuals with neurological conditions regain their independence, improve their quality of life, and reach their full potential.”

A journey of iteration and innovation

Maryanne acknowledges that, like any business starting out, they have faced many challenges. As they continue to grow, they strive to constantly iterate and improve upon their operations to provide the best possible experience for their clients.

One of the key challenges that RoboFit faces as they expand its business is navigating the tight labour market. As they open new sites and bring on new team members, it is crucial that they find individuals who align with the company culture and share the same passion for helping clients explore what’s possible.

To overcome this challenge, RoboFit has implemented a rigorous hiring process that involves assessing the qualifications and experience of potential team members and evaluating their values and how they align with the company’s mission. By prioritising cultural fit and passion for the work, RoboFit ensures that they are building a team of individuals who are dedicated to providing the highest quality care and support for their clients.

“The team at RoboFit has been able to witness some truly remarkable progress made by their clients so far. While the therapy occurs within the gym, the real impact can be seen when clients go back home and into their communities, where they can do things they previously couldn’t. Some clients have been able to swim with their kids, others have been more independent around the home, and some have even reduced their reliance on support.

“The year ahead looks very exciting for RoboFit. With all the hard work the team has invested so far, momentum has been building for the great things they will achieve this year. Just this month, they opened their second centre in Sydney, which has a waiting list of 100 clients eager to take advantage of the service. With centres located more closely to their clients, they can reduce the need to travel to Japan to access these life-changing technologies.

Despite the challenges, Maryanne and the team at RoboFit remain committed to their mission of contributing to a cure for paralysis and improving the lives of those living with neurological conditions. They continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible through the incorporation of cutting-edge technology and a multidisciplinary approach to treatment.

RoboFit is more than just a business venture for Maryanne and Daniel; it’s a personal mission to contribute to finding a cure for paralysis. 

Through RoboFit, Maryanne and Daniel are offering hope and a new lease on life to people who have been told they’ll never walk again. Their story is one of perseverance, determination, and love, and it serves as an inspiration to anyone who has faced adversity in their life.

“In the coming year, RoboFit aims to increase accessibility through additional locations and exciting partnerships. They also have some new innovations planned for the Australian and New Zealand market, which will be life-changing for those living with neurological and musculoskeletal conditions,” Maryanne concludes.

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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