Interview with Akina's co-founders Florian Haufe and Michele Xiloyannis

Catch a glimpse behind the scenes at Akina in this interview with the two co-founders Florian (CEO) and Michele (CTO).

01/08/248min read
    Akina founders Florian (left) and Michele (right). Beige background.

    Are you curious to find out more about Akina and its founders? We were too! That's why we decided to get to know them and their vision for Akina a little better. In this in-depth interview, the two entrepreneurs share some interesting insights: from their backgrounds before founding the company to the meaning of the name Akina and what it is like to work at their promising start up. Let’s jump right in!

    Who are Akina’s founders?

    Michele: Well, one of them is myself, Michele Xiloyannis, and the other one is Florian Haufe. We worked together for several years at ETH Zurich in the field of medical robotics, mostly with neurological patients. During this time, we identified major gaps in physiotherapy and rehabilitation that we decided to address with Akina.

    Could you tell us more about your academic background?

    Florian: I started as a mechanical engineer, and quickly realized that what really fascinated me was the application of technology in medicine. I started to work in nanoparticle fabrication. Specifically, we built superparamagnetic nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery. It sounds crazy, but it is a real and fascinating field of research. I then moved on to more external applications of technology: wearable robots. That took me to the US where I did some research at Harvard Medical School. I then went back to ETH Zurich to the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems for my PhD. This is where I met Michele.

    Michele: I'm an engineer by training. I started with biomedical engineering in Pisa, Italy. I think this was back in 2010. I graduated in 2013 and then moved to London for a Master Degree in Neurotechnology. This is a program at the interface between biomedical engineering and computer science. So I studied a bit of machine learning, a bit of neuroscience and their application to the medical field. After that, I started a PhD in Medical Robotics in Singapore, where I lived for four years. There, I was working with robots to help people with neurological conditions to walk or move independently in daily life again. Once I completed my PhD, I decided to move to ETH Zurich to continue doing research in the medical robotics field. And that's where I met Florian and then founded Akina.

    So, what is Akina?

    Florian: Akina is a startup company. We are a Spin-off of ETH Zurich, founded in 2021. Today, we are working on building the future of digital healthcare. We want to combine the best of AI assisted digital (physio-)therapy with real human connection on the other side. And that is something that did not yet exist, neither in Switzerland nor internationally.

    Akina is an interesting choice of name. What’s the story behind it?

    Florian: It is a Japanese word that describes a change of leaves, fresh green or spring blossom. We think that this is a great metaphor for the process of using Akina - coming from a state of injury and pain and wanting to transition to a brighter, healthier future. That is what Akina is supporting you in.

    Michele adds: Other than the symbolic representation of the recovery process after an injury or when dealing with a chronic condition, we chose the name Akina because it sounds good and everyone more or less pronounces it in the same way.

    Speaking of bright and blossoming – what were the biggest, most rewarding milestones since founding Akina?

    Michele: Oh, there were quite a few milestones, I would say. If I have to think about the most rewarding ones, well, definitely the first funding round was one of them because this marked the transition from a project that two people were doing on the side, hosted by a university, into a company. So this enlarged our ambitions to bring the product and the vision that we had to a much larger audience and make it to the market. I think a second one we achieved quite recently when Akina Cloud, our product, was certified as a medical device. What this means is that we now have a product that complies to the highest standards for data privacy, for security, and for the processes that are used to develop the product.

    Certification framed and held up.
    Akina's quality management system is certified to comply with ISO 13485.

    What about competitors?

    Florian: Since musculoskeletal health and pain management is such an important field, we have a lot of competitors, who all do great work. Some of the most important ones would be Kaia Health, Sword Health and Hinge Health, which are primarily operating in the US and are all offering full service solutions for musculoskeletal care. What sets us apart from them is that we efficiently combine human care with a digital product, which is really immersive and interactive thanks to our proprietary AI system.

    Can you tell us more about Akina’s proprietary AI system?

    Michele: Sure, we've been working on machine learning and artificial intelligence. In other words, all the algorithms that give Akina the power to recognize and track people's movements and analyze how well people are performing these movements, in order to give them feedback. So while you're doing your training in front of the camera, a quite extensive pipeline analyzes your movements in real time. Every 30 milliseconds, we have a new update on the quality of the movement, on the position of your joints, and we can recognize how many repetitions you've done and consequently give you feedback to drive your behavior. We call the first step of this process "pose tracking", this is tracking the joints, then "action recognition" to recognize your exercises, and then movement quality and mistake detection to give you feedback on what you should do better in your movements. We also have other pipelines that run outside of the session. One of them is called SILTA. SILTA is an AI that extracts the highlights from your therapy session. You can think of this like sports highlights when you watch a soccer match, and someone extracts the most crucial parts of the match to show them to you later in a condensed version. We do something very similar with our AI, but with the purpose of showing it to a therapist so they can give you feedback on your session.

    Laptop with software application Akina in living room.
    Akina Cloud tracks your movements and provides feedback in real time.

    Back to you Florian. What are your day-to-day tasks as CEO at Akina?

    Florian: It's really a little bit of everything. And I think that is what being a CEO at a startup really means. That being said, I would say my key priorities at this point are:

    1. Growing the team and finding people who are great at what they do and therefore multiplying our ability to move fast
    2. Making sure that our customers are happy, so working on the areas of sales and financing
    3. Making sure that everyone in the company itself stays happy and motivated to continue on our mission.

    Michele, how do yours and Florian's individual strengths complement each other in building this company?

    Michele: So, I think when we started, we were actually both very technical founders. We had a similar background and similar interests. But I feel in the last two and a half, three years, we decided to develop our skills. I stayed on the technical side, further deepening my knowledge in software engineering, machine learning, and how to deploy production quality code. Florian matured in the field of finance, economics, and then he worked in various departments in Akina, for example, human resources. He's also shaping the product. So I think by now we have very nicely complementary skills in the sense that I cover the technical part and Florian the management of the rest, I would say. 

    That makes sense. So let's get to business: What is it like working at Akina and what is the company's culture?

    Florian: Of course, it is awesome to work at Akina. I mean, that is what I say as one of the founders. Truth be told, you should probably ask our team if you want to get the individual perspectives of what it is like to work at Akina. But I feel what we strive for is sort of a merit-based culture. So, it doesn't matter what your age is or what your prior station before working Akina has been, it is really about what you can create as part of our team. And if you do a great job, we are truly impressed and we will support that going forward. It is about making an impact and I feel all our team members are driven by the opportunity and vision of contributing to a great product that can change the lives of the users for the better.

    Michele agrees: As a start up, we have a very open, communicative and dynamic culture and I say this not just because it is common to say that, but because I feel like we are really moving quite fast and we have to move quite fast and things change very dynamically. Having said that, at least in my experience it is a very pleasant interaction within the team. We encourage productivity, growth and open communication and we care a lot about the development and the happiness of our employees.

    Photo of Akina team members. Sign: Akina. Small moves, big results.
    The Akina team celebrates a successful 2023. 

    People are curious: Can you explain how Akina can provide an additional source of income for physiotherapists?

    Florian: This is a very important question. All too often we expect physiotherapists to do something on top of their already tightly packed schedule and really not be reimbursed for it. Of course, this is something that doesn't work in the long run. So, what we are looking at very closely are new services such as Remote Therapeutic Monitoring (RTM). This is something that already exists and is reimbursed for physiotherapists in the US, and has been received incredibly well. In the US, already 16% of physiotherapists use and charge for RTM services, which means, they can use data driven insights from what their patients do at home to adjust therapy and monitor progress. And this is something that Akina could take to a whole new level. Because we would be the only RTM tool that has objective data based on our AI. And we want to bring this opportunity to Switzerland to empower physiotherapists for a new way of delivering therapy in the future.

    Sounds great! So how can I partner with Akina?

    Florian: Well, it depends on which partnership you are looking for. If you are a clinic, a physiotherapist or work in a hospital, reach out to us. Via message, email, linked in etc. Tell us what you need to know in order to evaluate whether Akina is the right tool for you and your professional services. If you are a researcher, and you are fascinated by our AI and motion technology just as much as we are, also reach out. We are happy to discuss where we think the future of motion analysis is headed. And of course, if you are a patient and you want to try the product, go to our website and register for early access. And we will let you know once the product is ready to be tested.

    Florian, Michele and team member in meeting.
    Get in touch with the Akina team and learn more about the software - no matter if you are a healthcare provider or a patient.

    Last but certainly not least: When is the product launching?

    Michele: Akina Cloud will launch in February 2024, when we will start working with our clinical partners first to validate and refine the product. And then launch to the bigger audience by the end of the first quarter of 2024.

    Are you ready to try Akina Cloud for yourself? Enlist in the newsletter below and get notified once we launch our product! We are looking forward to getting active with you.

    01/08/248min read

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