Startups series: RoboFit

A life-changing accident over 10 years ago has been the inspiration for two-time start-up founders, Maryanne Harris and Daniel Hillyer.

A life-changing accident over 10 years ago has been the inspiration for two-time start-up founders, Maryanne Harris and Daniel Hillyer.

Their lived experience of spinal cord injury – Daniel being unable to walk after falling four metres due to a balcony railing giving way, and Maryanne as partner and primary carer – led first to the creation of tappON, and not long after, RoboFit.

Personal connection to care

tappON was founded based on their personal and professional experience of a disjointed disability care system. They wanted to address the gap and empower the person requiring support, providing them choice and control over the number of people involved in helping someone maintain independence in the home.

Combining Daniel’s personal journey, and Maryanne’s 10 years of aged care experience, they started tappON, an app that allows users to connect with personal care, domestic and cleaning support, gardening and house maintenance and allied health services based on ‘fit’: qualifications, past work history, and personality. tappON not only helps people match to healthcare providers but also allows them to work in a collaborative manner.

While nurturing tappON, the pair continued to explore new technologies and treatments for Daniel’s spinal cord injury. They travelled to Japan to try new technology that uses a neuro controlled exoskeleton wired with electrodes to support standing and walking, to encourage ‘neuroplasticity’. It’s a concept defined as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections”.

Daniel and Maryanne from RoboFit

Seeing change

“From that day, Dan went from day one of not being able to walk, to after the month of using the exoskeleton, walking himself around a 26 metre walking track three times. We could see the improvements he was having,” Maryanne says of that initial trip.

From that point, Daniel and Maryanne worked on bringing the technology – which can also be utilised for stroke rehabilitation, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions – to Australia.

“We often felt that technology was either in research labs or in the hospitals, which, for somebody like Dan, who spent 10 months in hospital, the last place he wanted to go back to was a hospital,” Maryanne says. “So we launched RoboFit with the intention of it being a community based centre.”

Following its launch in 2021 out of iAccelerate, where the couple began tappON, RoboFit has established a large client base and employs a number of trainers and support staff. With a recent move from the iAccelerate building to a stand alone rehab centre just down the road in North Wollongong, the early demand has the team looking at how to scale across Australia and New Zealand.

Wollongong advantages

Despite not being located in a capital city, there’s a number of advantages of being based in Wollongong for the business, their clients and their personal life. Wollongong is not far travel from Sydney for clients who live there, or for those who travel from interstate to Wollongong.

“We have clients travelling to and staying in the Wollongong region, use it as a location for a getaway for themselves. We’ve worked with local accommodation providers to develop packages so those clients can have a holiday while doing a month-long training program,” Maryanne says.

“It sounds like a commitment, and it is, but there’s a saying, when you have your health you have a thousand dreams, when you don’t have your health you just have one – to be healthy. And you do anything to work toward that dream.”

The University of Wollongong in close proximity is also of benefit, with the team connected to researchers in relevant fields there, as well as its exercise science and rehabilitation degree programs.

In terms of the RoboFit team, Maryanne says Wollongong is a location that offers an intrinsic work-life balance that people are looking for and which helps recruit and retain.

“In Wollongong, I felt we could offer employees that work-life balance, and I think the pandemic has definitely highlighted the importance to people of living somewhere they feel close to nature, or they’re able to get outside and have a bit more of a balance, rather than overworking or doing a huge commute every day pre-COVID. We’re definitely seeing everybody pull back a little bit more.”

For Maryanne and Daniel personally, this is also the case. The ability to grow successful businesses that help people to have more control over their care and over their bodies following accidents or illness, with a lifestyle that allows them to go to the beach every morning with a short a 20-minute commute to iAccelerate, is “amazing”.

“My advice for people that wanted to start their business in Wollongong, I would say do it,” Daniel says.

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