Many forces have combined to make opioid addiction a national epidemic.

But a primary one is the increased distribution and use of opioids as treatment for short term and chronic pain caused from injuries. While treatments like physical therapy (PT) are more effective, they’re naturally less scalable and more expensive than drugs because they require substantial time from both the patient and a highly-trained therapist.

A new platform created by a recent UNC grad offers a solution. PT Wired promises to improve outcomes for patients while increasing a physical therapist’s bandwidth, streamlining the physical therapy experience into an app and inadvertently, reducing the risk of opioid addiction.

Founder Vikram Sethuraman didn’t have to look far when it came to gathering feedback from potential customers and end-users. Rehab from his own injuries incurred as an ultimate frisbee player for a UNC club team inspired the startup.

After a visit with a therapist one day, he lost a piece of paper with exercises to complete between visits. Without his prescription, he couldn’t recall the exercises or how many repetitions to perform, stalling his recovery. He wondered why he couldn’t use an app to view videos of the assigned exercises, or to interact with his therapist.

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill’s business school in 2016 with a focus on entrepreneurship, Sethuraman took his idea to NC IDEA’s Groundwork Labs and Dan Ariely’s Startup Lab at Duke, both of which helped him design and test the concept. A new NC IDEA grant, one of six awarded in May, is helping to fund it, making PT Wired a “product of the Triangle,” says Thom Ruhe, NC IDEA president and CEO.

From a PT office to a classroom at UNC
Sethuraman’s startup journey began in Jim Kitchen’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship course at UNC, where he focused his semester-long project on solving the problem he encountered as a patient.

But it wasn’t until an unsatisfactory experience as a finance intern the following summer that he decided to pursue the idea full-time. Then a senior, he enrolled in Kenan Flagler’s Launching the Venture class, and spent much of his free time building the startup. UNC gave him the foundational knowledge to launch the company, he says, and Groundwork Labs was “essential in building our advisor network”. The program helped him learn that a product benefiting the patient wasn’t sufficient—the app also needed to decrease the therapist’s workload too.

The Startup Lab, meanwhile, helped him better understand “how people act irrationally in some senses” and strategize how to overcome their natural tendencies to not complete their at-home therapy assignments.

The challenge PT Wired is trying to solve comes down to this: visiting a therapist, completing rehabilitation exercises at home and then visiting a therapist again is costly and time intensive for both the provider and the patient. In the current system, the patient is required to keep and recall how to execute the prescribed exercises using only a paper prescription. The therapist has to manually type or write each prescription, make notes and track progress, and keep other required documentation for each patient. Adherence to the prescribed exercise routine given by the therapist in this system is only 30 to 35 percent. Sethuraman says his platform can double that.

The platform allows the physical therapist to assign customizable exercises to patients. The patients can view instructional videos, notes and reminders that guide their rehabilitation and can correspond with the providers through the app should they have any questions about therapy. Patients are periodically prompted to complete check-ins—like reporting their pain levels—a feature that helps the physical therapists complete documentation on the patient’s feedback and progress. Physical therapists can also track their patients’ adherence to the exercises, and can prompt them to complete their exercises through the app.

NC IDEA’s Ruhe believes the startup has gone far to increase efficiencies in the industry, a key reason the grant selection team at NC IDEA selected PT Wired for a grant. It’s also signing on customers already. Sethuraman’s target customers are the healthcare organizations that employ physical therapists—hospital systems, local clinics, or PT chains. He’s got all three types of customers so far, and contracts with nine clinics nationwide.

Scaling PT Wired means scaling the industry
PT Wired’s only investment so far is from the Startup Lab, which puts up to $60,000 in each portfolio company in return for a small equity stake. But Sethuraman plans to use his NC IDEA winnings to acquire HIPAA compliant servers, integrate the platform into electronic medical record (EMR) systems, and continue technical development. The company already has six full-time equivalent staff members, but Sethuraman is looking for a technical co-founder or in-house lead developer to continue building and scaling the platform.

A secondversion of the platform is coming soon too.

Sethuraman calls his progress and traction in a year’s time “satisfying”. Especially meaningful to him in the NC IDEA grant is that the evaluators “believe in our product.”

And while he wasn’t thinking of ending the opioid epidemic when he first conceived PT Wired, an unintended benefit if the platform is adopted en masse, is less reliance on prescription drugs.

Regardless, the platform promises to modernize and streamline the physical therapy experience for the tens of thousands of patients and therapists nationwide, allowing a previously unscalable industry to effectively treat more people.