When Ralph Poland suffered two severe strokes in short succession about 12 years ago, the 64-year-old Auburn resident was told he would never walk again.

“The last time the neurologist left my room I couldn’t talk yet, and he said, ‘You’d be lucky if you’re confined to a wheelchair the rest of your life,’ ” Poland said.

Through years of hard work, Poland has regained his ability to walk, but his gait is slower and more labored than it was before the strokes injured his brain. Recently, he had a chance to test out an experimental technology being developed in Portland that could change all that.

MedRhythms, a Portland-based startup that is using sensors, software and music to help people who have suffered brain injuries recover their walking functions, is about to scale up its operations thanks to a $5.3 million round of private investment in the company. Some major investors in the region are involved.

The investment will help MedRhythms develop and launch a patent-pending “digital therapeutics” platform that helps people with neurological injuries and diseases recover their ability to walk normally, according to the company.

Poland found out about MedRhythms through a brain injury support group he belongs to in Lewiston. The company approached the support group asking for volunteers to try out its system, which has yet to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

“MedRhythms came and did a presentation, and they asked us if anyone would like to volunteer to do a short session afterwards,” Poland said.

Ralph Poland, a stroke survivor, helped test out a technology being developed in Portland to help people with neurological injuries and diseases recover their ability to walk. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

MedRhythms uses sensors, software and music installed on a standard smartphone to measure a patient’s walking characteristics and help correct any problems. The patient listens to music through headphones, and based on feedback from sensors connected to the patient’s shoes, the software adjusts the tempo of the music.

“They first have you walk, and they have their device that can (measure) your pace,” Poland said. “Then after a while they start introducing music to it, and after a while they speed up the rhythm.”

Poland says the increase in tempo automatically caused him and other product testers to start walking faster.

“You don’t think about it, you just do it,” he said. “It’s amazing. When I had my session, there was one woman I knew who had partial paralysis in one part of her body, and I saw her walking faster than I’ve ever seen her walk before.”

The change in tempo triggers a subconscious neurological response that not only helps the patient walk faster and more easily, but through repeated use it actually rewires the brain to facilitate better walking even when there is no music, according to MedRhythms co-founder and CEO Brian Harris.

“The sensors measure your stride length, your symmetry, speed, cadence and the XYZ plane of your foot in real time,” Harris said. “That data feeds into our algorithm, which is based upon a smartphone, and then we change the music in real time based upon that data, guided by the neurological research of how music improves walking.”

MUSIC AND THE BRAIN

There is a strong scientific basis for the work MedRhythms is doing, said Sarah Thompson, a neurologic music therapist in Denver who is not involved with the company. She said multiple studies have shown that the same areas of the brain that control walking also are activated by music and rhythm, and a natural phenomenon known as neuroplasticity allows neurologic music therapy to permanently alter a damaged brain to improve walking over the long term.

According to Thompson, founder and CEO of Rehabilitative Rhythms, neurologic music therapy can be used to permanently improve the speed and stability of a patient’s gait, improve his or her balance and reduce the risk of falling down.

Brian Harris is co-founder and CEO of MedRhythms, which is about to scale up thanks to a recent $5.3 million round of investment in the company. Staff photo by Jill Brady

“It’s actually very systematic and logical,” she said. “We’re not just throwing something at the wall and seeing if it sticks.”

Harris said he personally witnessed the power of neurologic music therapy while working as a board-certified music therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. He wanted to make the therapy available to more people, and a smartphone app seemed like the best way to do it.

In 2015, Harris approached an old college friend from his alma mater, the University of Maine, about starting a company together. Owen McCarthy, a business school graduate, is MedRhythms’ other co-founder and president.

“I really wanted to work on something entrepreneurial that made a difference in people’s lives,” McCarthy said.

Harris and McCarthy decided to return to Maine, where they both grew up, to launch the company in August 2015. Recently, the company decided it was far enough along to seek a round of venture capital funding to hire software developers and product experts who could help MedRhythms bring its technology to market.

The company said it intended to raise $4 million but ended up raising $5.3 million because of “substantial interest” in its stock.

The funding round was led by Peter Werth of Werth Family Investment Associates LLC of Woodbridge, Connecticut. Other investors included Jean Hoffman, founder and former CEO of Portland-based pharmaceutical firm Putney Inc. Werth and Hoffman also sit on MedRhythms’ board of directors.

Hoffman said she learned about MedRhythms through the people who manage her financial affairs.

“Initially I met with them a few times, and I found the founders to be very, very impressive,” she said. “So I sort of offered to meet with them from time to time, and they took me up on it, and I initially put in a small amount of money, and I just made a significant follow-on investment in their series A round.”

Hoffman, whose former company was acquired by the British firm Dechra Pharmaceuticals in 2016 for $200 million, said she thinks MedRhythms has all the right ingredients for big success: a large, unaddressed market; a position at the forefront of the digital therapy trend; and outstanding founders whose skill sets complement each other well.

“I think they have all of the right components for a very successful company that grows large,” she said.

For its business plan to succeed, MedRhythms will need to obtain FDA approval for its digital therapy system. Ultimately, it wants the technology to be available via prescription through physicians and licensed therapists.

The approval process will require clinical trials, which have yet to commence. Still, the company’s founders said they are confident that the technology will prove helpful to patients with trouble walking because of brain injuries. In the future, the MedRhythms system could be tailored to help improve other skills, such as language, memory, attention and cognition, they said.

“There’s only a handful of companies that fall into this category of using software as an intervention that is regulated, that is (FDA)-approved, that’s taking this approach rather than just an app that you buy at the app store,” Harris said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jcraiganderson

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