JETRO Global Connection -Accelerate Innovation with Japan-

Pioneering New Frontiers in Rehabiliation

February 2, 2023

In this interview, Hiromu Uehara from JETRO speaks with Yumi Kawahara, President of Space Bio-Laboratories. External site: a new window will open.The Hiroshima-based startup has the vision to help more patients with new rehabilitation methods and cell-based therapy biotechnology.

RE-Gait®: rehabilitation device (Photographed by Space Bio-Laboratories)

What issues or problems are you working on?

Our goal is to create a solution that will completely cure the disease. We are focusing on cerebral vascular disease (stroke) treatment specifically. While the number of patients who survive has increased, the number of patients with severe disabilities remaining after a stroke is high. Rehabilitation has been around for about 77 years, and medicine has advanced so much in that time, but rehabilitation has stayed the same.

When regenerative medicine came out, patients' expectations were high. Patients have the idea that they will be cured completely, but they are left with paralysis that does not recover as expected. The patients may be able to walk a little better, but they still need a cane. It is hard work for caregivers, so we want to reduce the number of bedridden people and enable them to walk.

After traditional rehabilitation, some people no longer need a cane or wheelchair. We felt that we had to provide that kind of rehabilitation, and the RE-Gait®, support device, was a tool. When researching how to improve the therapeutic efficacy of regenerative medicine, we found a solution when cells were cultured in a simulated microgravity environment.

The results of animal experiments have shown that the quality of stem cells increases when they are cultured in a simulated microgravity environment using a device called Gravite®. While raising the level of regenerative medicine with Gravite®, we can provide new rehabilitation methods with RE-Gait®, aiming for a complete cure. Some patients may even participate in the Honolulu Marathon, which provides excellent motivation for them.

This startup originates from Hiroshima University. Can you tell us about the history?

Dr. Yuge is the founder, who specializes in rehabilitation. While studying abroad, he followed a NASA researcher professor who was studying the health issues (muscle atrophy, bone atrophy) of NASA astronauts. These are also issues for bedridden people, so it could be helpful in rehabilitation.

Hiroshima University’s Campus (Photographed by JETRO)

Do you look for diversity in your lab?

Yes. In a typical laboratory, some professors specialize in distinct fields. We have one working on regenerative medicine and another on cellular biotechnology, but also brain science, engineering, and motion analysis research with RE-Gait®.

What are the plans for future development?

Currently, it is doctors and staff at medical and nursing care facilities who purchase RE-Gait®; several patients use one shared unit. Many patients want to use the RE-Gait® device to walk around at other times, outside of the limited time at rehabilitation clinics. We need to change and improve the specifications for this.

Our company's goal is to achieve complete recovery in walking, but the next step is to develop specifications that will enable the patient to use it for their hands as well.

What is your message to partners, investors, etc.?

We have raised funds twice, but many investors are trying to grow and invest in the short term, such as 3-5 years. It's taken quite a bit of time to develop the technology because of completely different culture methods and other factors. New technologies take time to be accepted. It is difficult unless the investor company understands this.

How did you raise funds?

First, I went to a VC firm in Hiroshima and a VC firm affiliated with a regional bank. I talked with various venture firms, attended pitch events, and exchanged business cards.

NASA has used the product. Did that make it easier to get funding?

Gravite® is used by NASA, and when NASA uses it to make product presentations, people sometimes ask for it. This situation is a big plus in terms of selling products.

However, for investors, it is a different story. They ask “Why does Gravite® sell?” or “How many does it sell?”. The market is small and complex, although it is an accepted product.

Gravite® with Dr. Yuge and NASA researchers (Photographed by Space Bio-Laboratories)

Is there any competitor for Space Bio Laboratories?

There are many competitive robotic rehabilitation products. However, they are clearly different from ours; they are often designed by professors of engineering, and the first designs are created from an engineers’ point of view. They would make patients to increase movement, but the goal is not “cure,” which is our product’s goal. We want investors to understand this unique difference, which is actually not so easy.

I haven't seen much made by clinicians in this field.

Rehabilitation in Japan is reimbursed based on how long it takes: the same payment for 20 minutes of sitting and talking or for 20 minutes of rehabilitation using a machine. Thus, from the viewpoint of hospitals’ financial management, they are not willing to invest in a device which costs as much as RE-Gait®. Only a few doctors are willing to take on this challenge.

How have you used JETRO's service?

JETRO helped us for a couple of years when we needed to find funds in the US. When the first Gravite® unit came out, we were developing the market. Last year, JETRO did market research for us in Taiwan.

Profile of Yumi Kawahara
Yumi Kawahara is a co-founder and CEO of Space Bio-Laboratories. She has license of National Registered Dietitian and JSRM Cell Processing Operator. She received at PhD in health science from Hiroshima University. She won Unicorn Program pitch contest sponsored by YMFG as a speaker of Space Bio-Laboratories in 2019 and OPA of The Monozukuri Nippon Grand Award sponsored by Ministry of Economy in 2020.
Report by:
UEHARA Hiromu, Intellectual Property Division, JETRO

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