Making science smarter


Time is running out to get your applications in for the Physiotherapy Research Foundation Physio Pitchfest, to be held at the APA conference this October. To whet your appetite, InMotion speaks with Leo Ng, who won the People’s Choice Award at the inaugural event in 2019.

Research is all about the long game, says Dr Leo Ng, a senior lecturer at Curtin University and researcher with an eye on using digital technology to improve learning.

‘You are going to take steps forward in finding a solution to an issue, and you are also going to have some missteps that will set you back a bit.

'But the main thing is you keep learning and innovating to find a solution for your problem. For me, I want to make science smarter through the use of artificial intelligence.’

In 2019 Leo was able to share some of his innovative work at the inaugural Physio Pitchfest, pitching his idea of a web application (app) that uses machine- learning technology in the form of natural language processing to semi-automate the screening of articles in systematic review articles.

Today, more than 150 users (including researchers and students) are trialling the application in their research work and study, using its algorithms and statistical models to automatically recognise patterns and inference within documents—understanding contexts in sentences— without the need to spend countless hours reading articles or giving instruction.

The app is considered a subset of artificial intelligence and a game changer in accelerating the research process by saving time and maximising output.

The thousands of abstracts it screens in hours would traditionally take researchers months to read, Leo says.

Progressing an idea to adaptation in the workplace is what the Physiotherapy Research Foundation is seeking in hosting the Physio Pitchfest in October as part of the THRIVE 2021 conference to be held in Brisbane.

The event aims to highlight innovative ideas or concepts that address an unmet clinical need with the potential to advance physiotherapy practice or improve patient wellbeing.

The applicant with the successful pitch wins $15,000 to support further development of their idea. Additionally, the audience will vote for a People’s Choice Award with the successful winner receiving a 2022 APA membership.

Even though Leo didn’t have the winning pitch, the judges shortlisted his idea because ‘the solution solves a huge pain point for researchers’.

The audience was also impressed, voting him the People’s Choice Award winner. The public acknowledgement was the boost he needed to progress to prospective validation and usability trials.

He has continued to work with a programmer to refine the web application, develop a business plan and meet with investors to gain much-needed capital to commercialise the research screener technology.

As the app progresses to a full website and commercialisation, software as a service model is being adopted to maintain sustainability. Potential markets are universities and research institutes, as well as research students globally.

‘In the past two years I have learned how to take an idea and commercialise it. There is still work to do, but I am not a business person, it’s a different skill set.

'So to have an opportunity to take an idea, even if it is one that improves on an existing application or device, and share it on a public platform, such as Pitchfest, is really important to advancing the profession.’

Interest has already piqued in the health sector, with a tertiary hospital trialling the web application in a beta-testing phase to improve its research output. Curtin University has also provided funding for further development of this application.

‘It’s still early days but to have a hospital and its researchers trialling it is fantastic, as they see it has having the potential to help with their work,’ Leo says.

‘Some researchers have used this fully functioning web application and have submitted their manuscripts citing the use of this system.

'What drives me in developing this system is hoping that one day, a researcher tells me that this system saved three months of their work and helped save more lives or improve the quality of lives of more people in the community.’

Involvement with Pitchfest has helped the academic and physiotherapist better understand the business side of innovation to manage a tech start-up.

‘It’s okay to have an idea, that’s 10 or 20 per cent of the product. You then need to take it many steps further and understand how you could apply that idea within business: how do you develop that product and how do you make it financially sustainable?

'It’s only a product that everyone is going to use if you have a business plan,’ Leo says.

‘From Pitchfest, I learnt the business side of innovation. In being able to speak with judges, people who have had success with either a start-up or businesses, [they] were very supportive with their time in helping applicants understand how to take their innovation from an idea to solve a problem to a practical application.

‘As a researcher, I know myself the hours that could be saved in using a device that could automatically scan documents to pinpoint a word or phrase. The idea came about when it took me nine months to read through 3000 abstracts to conduct a systematic review.

'Today, we have a web app that uses machine learning to dramatically shorten the time taken to disseminate research findings. In some fields of research, such as cancer, this has the potential to save lives.’

Learning new skills in public speaking has also been a welcome outcome.

‘As a lecturer you have a minimum 30 minutes to convey information; Pitchfest was new territory and getting my message to three very important minutes might have been stressful in the lead up but it was worth pushing myself to practise being concise and targeted with my words.’

Immediately after Pitchfest, news of the web application spread, with Leo fielding calls from researchers Australia-wide.

All were eager to learn more about his idea, as well as encourage him to develop the application.

‘That was really important validation. When you’re coping with a start-up company and the challenges that come with it, to have support from physiotherapy professionals and researchers that will potentially be using this system, it makes it worthwhile,’ he says.

‘I have never been disappointed that I didn’t win because Brodwen [McBain, winner of Physio Pitchfest 2019] was far ahead of me in developing her orthosis. To have the opportunity to share my idea with a crowd of 1700 people was priceless.’

The education sector has also recognised the potential in the research screener, awarding Leo a national teaching award for his innovation.

It is just one of numerous teaching awards he has received in the past 10 years, recognition of his efforts to enhance physiotherapy students’ professional and employability skills, particularly through the use of digital technology to develop artificial intelligence and game-based learning aids.

As the director of Learning and Teaching at Curtin School of Allied Health, Leo leads the development, implementation and monitoring of school quality assurance and improvement strategies for learning and teaching.

‘I am passionate about innovation, particularly ways to integrate digital technologies to support learning. I am curious to find new ways to engage with students and inspire them to take what they have learned and elevate into new ways to engage with patients in a clinical setting,’ he says.

‘Innovation is not always about coming up with the best product to sell and make millions. It’s actually about improving efficiency and how we deliver things.

'In 2020, myriad physiotherapists were forced to adapt and look for ways to thrive in a world in which we could not travel. We had to find efficiencies in communication, and we did that—we learned to communicate more online and interact with patients and students.

'We showed it was possible to innovate on a big scale.’

Leo encourages colleagues to enter this year’s award, and be optimistic about the outcome even if the odds are not necessarily in your immediate favour.

‘About 80 per cent of start-ups fail. Yes, that’s a lot. But if we keep thinking about that, there won’t be any emerging innovations in anything. We can’t be scared of failure. I’m still prepared for my innovation to fail.

'If it does, hopefully, I will look at the things that I’ve learned and think of the things that I’ve just shared with you, like the positive experience. So watch this space and see what happens.

‘Don’t just stop at having an innovative idea. Take it further; it will be challenging, but worth seeing where it takes you.’

>> Don’t miss out—applications for the Physio Pitchfest close on Friday, 23 April. Click here for more information. And visit here to keep up to date with the latest information on this year’s APA conference and to register.


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