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Playing for success with the dementia ball


It was just one year ago that ichó was welcomed into the Social Impact Lab Duisburg. Since then, the four founders have taken a huge leap forward with their technology-based dementia therapy: from student project to start-up. And Haniel staff and shareholders from the Haniel family have given them a helping hand in the process.

At first glance, the white silicon ball with the grooves, ridges and bumps doesn’t look like there’s anything spectacular about it, but it packs a lot inside its unassuming appearance: ichó helps people suffering from dementia to stimulate their cognitive and psychomotor skills and thus to maintain their everyday competence. How does it work? The technology packed into ichó means it can recognise when it’s thrown, caught, stroked, squeezed or rolled and then react to that: with sounds, colourful lights and vibrations. This makes a wide variety of applications possible, including games in single-person and group sessions, but also targeted stimulation focusing on the individual’s particular needs.

The idea was born from a student project at Hochschule Düsseldorf (University of Applied Sciences). The four founders submitted an application to the Social Impact Lab Duisburg a year ago and joined the AndersGründer start-up incubator programme there on 1 July. ichó has made a massive leap forward since then: from student project to start-up. The team has not only further developed and improved the ball, it has also professionalised its production. “A year ago, we were still moulding the silicon shell in the kitchen ourselves, but thanks to the Social Impact Lab’s network we now have a professional producer,” recounts Steffen Preuß, the ichó team member responsible for communication and design. The ball will be tested in cooperation with Parität NRW in 12 day-care centres at the end of the year – the first small-scale production run and final evaluation before the product is launched on the market. What’s more, the team is now on the look-out for its own laboratory – they have outgrown the university’s facilities in the meantime. “I don’t think we would have got as far as we have today without the Social Impact Lab and Haniel,” Preuß sums up. What were especially important for the founders were project management skills, such as structures, schedules and milestones as well as the network’s contacts. “We weren’t sure before whether we should finish developing the product first and then take it to the public or whether we should go to the market with a prototype. With the Lab behind us, we took the plunge.” The legal advice was crucial, too: “We had been given totally wrong advice before and wouldn’t even have registered a patent for our technology.”

Visiting Haniel events
Through Haniel, the team gained many opportunities to present their idea to decision-makers, for example at the Leadership Lab trade fair for start-ups. “That was the first time we had a stand at a fair, and we learned so much. The questions from management executives meant we were able to prepare better for the geriatric care trade fair,” says Preuß. Some of the teams from the Social Impact Lab also presented their ideas at the shareholders’ meeting, which led to various co-operation projects. A shareholder couple who are well versed in both the financial and the nursing industry subsequently developed with ichó a five-year plan with a capital requirement of €2.5 million and are planning involvement in a venture capital fund as the next step.

Invitation from the Institute for Human Centered Design
Word gets around when you have a good idea: although the team did not submit an application themselves, ichó was selected for two renowned international projects. The founders have just returned from Washington D.C., where the Institute for Human Centered Design is currently exhibiting solutions for social and health problems at the Kennedy Center as part of the events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy. ichó attracted the institute’s attention during its search for exhibits. A great honour, for Germany is otherwise represented only by one project from the Fraunhofer Society.

“An exhibition opportunity like this is of course associated with a lot of expense, but it was well worth it,” relates founder Steffen Preuß. “Our specially produced ichó exhibition prototypes were incredibly well received, and we’re delighted that they form a small highlight of the exhibition thanks to their interactivity. The important thing now is to maintain the new contacts and the impressions we collected. You face a totally different care system in the States, and you have to make suitable preparations for that. The market for new, innovative products in the field of the care and stimulation of people with cognitive disorders is definitely there, but it has to be driven differently in the US.”

Ideas from Europe
Like some other teams from the Social Impact Lab in Duisburg, ichó was furthermore nominated for the Special Impact Award of the foundation KfW Stiftung. The team may not have been able to claim victory in the end, but there was another surprise in store for them. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy had selected it to represent Germany at Ideas from Europe, a competition organised by the European Commission that highlights ideas with the potential to deliver solutions to global challenges. The aim is to provide the finalists with support in scaling up their business ideas. The semi-final will held in Tallinn in Estonia in November, and ichó will be looking to qualify for the final in Brussels in March 2018. “It's a fantastic opportunity for us to introduce our project to a large audience,” says Preuß. So for the moment, it’s fingers crossed!