In 1991 it was a kernel of an idea, but only in the past five years has Novita Healthcare’s (ASX:NHL) solution become a potential game-changer for millions of kids and their parents.
It was back then that respected psychologist and neuroscientist Kim Cornish was wrapping up a PhD in experimental psychology and working with children who were broadly described as having ‘developmental issues’.
They had trouble paying attention in school, and therefore were on the back-foot straight away.
If they couldn’t pay attention in school, then they were late to develop numeracy and literacy skills, fell behind their peers, and suffered the consequences of that.
“Later on in the teenage years, if left undetected it can lead to like truancy to anxiety to depression — and along with that can come substance abuse,” Cornish told Star Investing.
“So inattention in the classroom becomes this huge issue — they’re starting from behind if they start off with poor attention.”
However, in the ‘90s children displaying inattention in school were simply put in a ‘developmental delay’ basket with no attempt to dig deeper into the underlying causes of their inattention.
“If you gave all these children an IQ test, they would all basically score 70,” Cornish said. “All had behavioural problems including attention, but they were all treated the same way. As if though the one approach of ‘dumbed down’ education would actually make it okay.”
So, she started to dig deeper into the underlying causes of inattention by applying different tests — and found that some kids who were put in the ‘developmental delay’ basket were good at some tasks, but not others.
It was the genesis of Tali Train, which helps kids broadly described as having inattention issues improve on various aspects of their performance in the classroom with game-based training.
“I found from the very early days that if you develop measures or paradigms that can certainly tap different types of strengths, then you will find different profiles of phenotypes across these kids,” she said.
Over a decade of testing, grants, and the not insignificant matter of moving from England to Australia with a stop in the US, Cornish was ready to develop her research into a tool which could help parents.
Crucially, by 2010 Cornish and others were starting to find that the tools couldn’t just be applied to children with severe developmental issues — but to children who had a tough time focusing in school.
“We started to see that cognitive mechanisms would be impaired in regular kids as well, maybe not to the same extent, but we were starting to see it,” Cornish said.
These are kids for whom the first option may be psychostimulant drugs such as Ritalin — so if Cornish and her team could develop something to give parents options, all the better.
That possible wider application also pointed to a much greater chance of commercialisation — and therefore impact.
“To put it in context,” Cornish explained, “in Australia about 650 thousand children have a severe attention impairment that will not particularly benefit from stimulants, and nor do many parents want to put them on stimulants.
“Nor do we understand the long term consequences of stimulants in an already impaired brain. So the alternative for families and schools in these children was pretty minimal before Tali.”
It was around this time that the first seeds of Tali Train as a product were being sown, when Monash University (where Cornish remains the head of the School of Psychological Sciences) started to team up with Torus Games and Grey Innovation.
Hannah Kirk also joined the team, and would become Chief Research Officer at Novita — and saw the struggle parents had with a lack of choice when it came to treatment of inattention in children.
“For parents, a choice to put a child on stimulant medication is a very difficult one and for some children it is very effective in reducing inattentive and hyperactive behaviour,” Kirk said.
“I think we just want to be giving parents more options, so the medication isn’t the only option.
“If you have a child who’s four years old and you know that that child is struggling with attention difficulties — at the age of four you’re probably not going to want to put that child on medication.”
The market was there and the science was in, but that didn’t mean that Tali was automatically going to become a tool in classrooms.
Novita enters the picture
Tali was set up as a joint venture between Monash and Grey Innovation, and despite the promising science, it was struggling to get to the point of commercialisation — which was crucial if they wanted the solution to find its way into as many children’s hands as possible.
It was set up as a private company, but to grow the path to distribution it would need the kind of access to capital an ASX-listing could provide — and luckily Novita was in the market for promising med-tech solutions.
This investment gave the team at Tali the capital it needed to go out onto the road to get the solution into kids’ hands.
Thanks to the early work done by Novita, Tali now had classification under Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme and classification as a class 2 medical device by the US FDA.
Technology has also evolved over the past five years to the point where the Tali training program could be delivered remotely onto most tablet devices.
In short, the Novita investment has been a step-change for Tali — and Cornish and Kirk’s days are busier than ever, not that they mind.
“The best part is being able to get it into classrooms and see a whole classroom using Tali Train, and talking to the teachers who are in amazement about the impact of Tali,” said Kirk.
And for all the talk about Tali being a commercial product, it comes back to the very human impact the technology is having for Kirk and Cornish.
“We had one parent from Alice Springs who got in touch with us out of of the blue,” Kirk remembered, “and he was saying that he had seen something about Tali Train and would like to access it.
“Thanks to the funding we now have, we were able to post a tablet out to him and he used the program for a five week period, and he just said it’s been incredible. He didn’t think that his daughter could engage in any type of traditional intervention, but she was able to use Tali Train.
“It’s amazing to get that sort of feedback, to know your work is having an impact on a personal level in the lives of people who would normally not be able to access this type of tool because they’re miles and miles away from specialists.”
From a kernel of an idea in 1991, nearly two decades later Tali is having a real human impact, and that fills Cornish with pride.
“As a researcher, you always promise that your research will have an impact — but when it actually does and you see it, it’s an amazing feeling,” Cornish said.
“It’s lovely to feel that that we’ve made a difference in that we can continue to find this, and know that we’re doing good.”
This content is produced by Star Investing in commercial partnership with Novita Healthcare. This content does not constitute financial product advice. You should consider obtaining independent advice before making any financial decisions.
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