Mums illness inspired son to develop cutting-edge virtual health technology

The founder of Kiwi tech company Seki.ai, John Mamea-Wilson, tells Jane Phare how a family illness inspired him to develop medical devices that could help monitor Covid-19 patients at home or in remote communities.

John Mamea-Wilson was working in the fitness industry and developing technology to improve results for high-performance athletes in Dubai when his mother was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.

The Auckland businessman’s late mother Sarai was diagnosed with myelofibrosis in 2010, and underwent chemotherapy and eventually a bone marrow transplant when her sister was found to be a match. The treatment bought her some time, but by 2018 Sarai’s condition was deteriorating again.

That year Mamea-Wilson, now 45, returned home to Māngere Bridge in South Auckland from Dubai, where he and his wife Deanne had been living since 2003. With Sarai increasingly needing blood transfusions, Mamea-Wilson wanted to help her GP and oncologist to monitor her more closely.

“Her condition got worse until she was needing blood every two weeks, then every week, eventually every three days.”

How, he wondered, could he track his mother’s health daily to tell the specialists when she needed a transfusion? Already working with an Israeli technology company developing high-performance sports tech, Mamea-Wilson returned to Israel to fast-track health-monitoring equipment.

He specifically wanted a device that would not only monitor his mother’s vital signs, but also the condition of her blood – including measuring hematocrit (the proportion of red cells in the blood), haemoglobin and blood viscosity – without having to put a needle in her arm.

The result was a multi-parameter version of a pulse oximeter that is the flagship device for Mamea-Wilson’s company, Seki.ai. Known as the Seki MTX, it also measures blood pressure, oxygen saturation, carbon dioxide, respiratory rate and pH levels. Using the device, Mamea-Wilson was able to send his mother’s health results to her specialists to let them know when she needed another blood transfusion.

“That was a game changer for her,” he says.

Sarai died in 2019 after a fall in Auckland Hospital following a second bone marrow transplant. Mamea-Wilson says that while the technology may not have saved his mother’s life, it will make a difference in the health outcomes of others, particularly people who may not have easy access to a doctor or are in remote communities.

“People can take this home with them and just do a daily test, and then pdf those results directly to the doctor.”

The MTX will be one of several Seki.ai devices used to monitor the health of Animation Research founder Sir Ian Taylor, who is self-isolating in an Auckland townhouse after returning from Los Angeles this week. Taylor received permission from the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) to conduct his #151 Off The Bench trial under strict protocols and using Kiwi technology to monitor his self-managed isolation.

Taylor, 71, will wear a SekiBeat MTX watch throughout his 14-day isolation, enabling the company’s medical director, former All Blacks and Warriors doctor John Mayhew, to monitor his health including blood pressure, oxygen saturation, temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate.

If Taylor feels unwell, he will be able to use the SekiLife clinic-in-a-box device and app, enabling Mayhew to do a virtual consultation with the help of tools like a tongue depressor and stethoscope connected to a high-definition camera. It means that from Mayhew’s North Shore office he will be able to check Taylor’s ears, nose and throat, as well as his temperature, and heart and lung function.

The technology will also be used to assess Taylor’s stress levels and mental health by checking his blood pressure and heart-rate variables.

“Heart rate variable is a promising biomarker of mental health resilience,” Mamea-Wilson says. “Stress can also cause short-term spikes in blood pressure.”

He sees a future when the technology could be used to regularly collect data and monitor the mental health of patients.

The Seki.ai technology is already being used by iwi and Pasifika health community groups, but has been more widely tested in outback territories in South Australia. That link was made through the Port Adelaide Football Club, when Mamea-Wilson was working on high-performance hypoxic training equipment with AFL players. He got to know the club’s then Aboriginal programmes director Paul Vandenbergh, who left this year to set up a not-for-profit foundation to support young Aboriginal people.

“We’re now in nine of their community clinics in the middle of Australia. It’s a 15-hour drive from Adelaide to the APY Lands (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara). They can all be seen by a doctor who is sitting in Adelaide.”

The equipment is also used to triage patients, assessing their condition before The Flying Doctor service arrives.

“And that also preps the people in the community as to why they are going to see the doctor and what they can expect.”

The company’s geo-watch and geo-fencing systems are also used for South Australian return-to-home prisoner programmes. That technology was originally developed in 2019 for the offshore oil rig industry in Scotland, used by supervisors to quickly locate their staff and react fast if a worker fell into the freezing North Sea.

Mamea-Wilson was working on virtual fitness and health technology when he was asked if he knew anyone who could develop personal security systems. As a result, he partnered with a UK tech company to develop the Seki geo-watch system. He’s currently talking to the Cook Islands Government about using both the medical technology and the geo-watches for parole prisoners.

But New Zealand and its vulnerable communities are where Mamea-Wilson now wants to focus. Both he and Deanne grew up in South Auckland, he of Samoan descent, she of Niuean and Ngāpuhi heritage. They hope the technology can be used to provide regular healthcare data and to monitor chronic diseases that are prevalent in at-risk communities.

“It will be able to provide trending data so we can catch things early or monitor diseases that already exist,” Mamea-Wilson says. “The thing about us, especially our men, they won’t go to get help until they’re ready to go to the hospital and we need our hospital beds free.”

After a meeting in a cafe a couple of years ago, Mayhew was happy to help test the Seki.ai equipment and compare the results with existing medical devices. Currently the medical officer for AIA Insurance and the doctor for North Harbour Rugby, he gives straightforward feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

“He tells us if it’s accurate and easy to use,” Mamea-Wilsons says. “He’s shut down two bits of technology, one that overlapped something already in use and one that he found difficult to use.”

In a Seki.ai video, Mayhew talks about his long-time patient and All Blacks great Jonah Lomu, who died at the age of 40 after suffering chronic kidney disease. Mayhew looked after Lomu for 20 years, often talking to him long-distance when the All Blacks were playing overseas. Mayhew says the Seki.ai technology would have been useful to monitor Lomu’s health in those days.

“He’d ring me up and I’d be giving him advice,” Mayhew says. “And if I was able to get more scientific and biological information, it would have made life a lot easier. It would have given us more information to improve his management. For the typical rugby injury it’s not that important, but someone with a chronic health problem like renal failure, having that information is vital for good patient care and good outcomes.”

The technology would also be useful for those recovering from the flu or Covid-19 at home, by being able to remotely monitor things such as heart rate and oxygen saturation, Mayhew says.

The next step for the company is to seek funding to expand. To date, Mamea-Wilson and his wife have self-funded much of the development, with the help of contracts in Australia and with the NHS in Scotland.

“This allows us to bootstrap the company.”

Now he’s talking to investors in the US, South Australia and New Zealand.

“And because of our kaupapa we get phone calls and emails from mum-and-dad investors because a lot of this resonates with them. It might be someone who is ill in their family or whether they just like the story of community, they want to be a part of it.”

You've got a job where?

As a young man, Mamea-Wilson played professional rugby in Wales and Brisbane until, at the age of 26, Deanne applied for a job in Dubai as a flight attendant with Emirates.

“She only told me when she actually got the job. It was her chance to see the world.”

The couple moved to Dubai, where Mamea-Wilson worked in a gym for a Kiwi friend, fitness club guru Greg Boucher, the brother of former Tall Black Dillon Boucher, now the CEO of Basketball New Zealand.

Mamea-Wilson began installing gyms in military bases throughout the UAE. That led to installing altitude training chambers for the US, Kiwi and British military to use before missions to Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was that interest in altitude training that caused him to connect with an old Kiwi friend and authority on hypoxic breathing and altitude training, Mike Mitchener, who was lecturing in the Ukraine.

Mamea-Wilson began working in high-performance sports, with people using altitude training, prominent rugby and rugby league players, rowers, Tour de France competitors and football teams. He still works with sportspeople but the message he pushes is health before performance.

“So health data before performance data, because if you’re healthy you’ll perform. At the moment if someone has a bad game, they’ll just drop him, and then he’s left to pick up the pieces. But there’s got to be a reason why he didn’t perform that day.”

During his time in the Middle East, Mamea-Wilson built up contacts with technology companies in Israel, India, the UK and Australia to develop medical devices for which he sees an opening, and which fill a need either for patients at home or in remote communities.

Seki.ai technology is being trialled by Ngāpuhi healthcare providers and Mamea-Wilson is in talks with community groups including Whānau Tahi, part of Te Whānau O Waipareira Trust, about collaborating in joint ventures to improve health outcomes.

“We train nurses for healthcare providers but the unique thing about the tech is you don’t need to be a nurse to use it, which is why it works well in Indigenous communities. We are in churches in South Auckland where they have their own health-screening clinic, monitoring the health of their people. The data is sent to the GP for monitoring trends.”

All of the technology has European CE approval, and some has FDA, Medsafe and TGA (Australian) certification. In March last year the company was approached by the World Health Organisation to supply 1000 MTX devices to Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, and Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital to speed up triage in emergency rooms.

“The ability to quickly and accurately get those deep bio-markers helped with issues of a backed-up emergency room.”

Some of those devices were also used for home isolation in Wuhan, which Mamea-Wilson says provided doctors with more in-depth information than the pulse oximeter being supplied by the Ministry of Health to Kiwis isolating at home.

“Not only for the many more parameter measurements, but because many of those in home isolation have underlying chronic issues which MTX can monitor as well. This is what New Zealand isn’t doing well. They’re monitoring Covid-19 symptoms, then when people die they say it’s because of something else yet they haven’t been monitoring that something else.”

Last year the company helped with building a contact tracing platform for the Victorian Government. The system was trialled at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park.

Although the bread-and-butter revenue comes from contracts overseas, Mamea-Wilson says he and Deanne are both home to stay.

“Even though funding is hard to get in New Zealand, we want to do it all here. We are committed to New Zealand because we live here and our community is here.”

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