An app designed to help young cancer patients better understand their time in hospital is now going to market after five years of development.
When 13-year old Issy was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, nobody told her what to expect, which left her feeling scare and anxious.
Her father Dom Rabam, the founder of app development agency Corporation Pop, was inspired by the experience to create ‘Xploro’, in the hopes that it could help children like Issy better understand what was happening.
Raban, a designer by background, set up Coroporation Pop in 1991 but is ‘stepping aside’ from the business to focus on Xploro while remaining a major shareholder.
“As an agency you have to believe in every project and get excited about other people’s ambitions. But with Xploro, it’s personal,” he said.
The app began a trial at The Christie, one of the largest cancer treatment centres of its type in Europe, in July of 2019. It is now one of the firm’s paying customers.
The app begins by allowing children to create a customised avatar and virtual friend. This new character introduces the child to the hospital and its processes and procedures, including the likes of MRI scans.
The hope is that alongside helping children feel more comfortable and prepared, it can also help treatment go more smoothly. Around 20% of children move during their first MRI scan, a process which is often daunting loud.
“What we’re trying to do with that piece of preparation, is to say ‘this is what it’s going to be like, and it’s going to makes noises but it’s not going hurt. We’re hoping to reduce the amount of times they move and therefore the amount of times that the procedure has to be repeated.”
That avatar is also the face of an artificially intelligent chatbot, which was built in-house. Raban said it was the most intensive stage of development.
“We found that there weren’t any AI systems that did exactly what we wanted it to do. We wanted it to work online and offline, and almost all AIs work online,” he explained of its creation.
The other important aspect was that children’s imperfect spelling did not confuse the software. This feature did not really exist.
“In conversational AI technology you have things called intents, which are like verbs and entities, which are essentially nouns.
“The existing AI systems had spellcheck built in, but only on those intents, not the entities. In the medical space you’ve got lots of words which even adults struggle to spell.”
The firm used the skills of a children’s scriptwriter who had previously worked on Cbeebies and CBBC to make sure the language remained appropriate.
Raban compared the game to a very specific version of The Sims for you people.
“It’s really important when you go in to hospital that you have a sense of control,” he said.
Also included is a calendar that enables the child to keep their own diary events but it also pulls in calendar events from the hospital.
“If the hospitals got an appointment system it pulls those into the calendar, and it’s really child friendly.
“The important thing about the calendar is the child can record a mood against an event just by using an emoji.
“That information is played back to a management portal that we built so that clinicians can look at it and say ‘this patient’s feeling bad today and is worried about his operation.”
The result of this attention to detail is that Xploro now has international attention and is planning a £500k equity fundraise to open an office in New York and continue the app’s growth.
“We’re getting a lot of interest from overseas, we’ve got potential interest in Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the USA,” he said. The firm now has an agreement in place with Hospital Sant Joan de Déu in Barcelona to develop the Spanish version.
Issy, now 20 years old and cancer free, has been involved in the development of the app too, said Raban. She has even run user testing sessions and workshops.
“We’re at a really exciting point right now, because we’ve just launched commercially, after more than four years in development.
“The long term goal is to have a health information platform for any patient of any age with any condition. All this requires from us is to change the user interface slightly because it’s currently child-focussed.”