Dr Boreham’s Crucible: Blinklab

Small Caps | May 20 2024

By Tim Boreham, Editor, The New Criterion

For a stark insight into the crippling cost of autism, look no further than Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Autism now accounts for 35% of the 610,502 active participants in the Federal Government program, with $6.73bn paid to support autism sufferers in 2022-’23.

That’s 28% higher than the previous year and a major reason why the cost of the scheme is projected to blow out to $100bn-plus if no remedial action is taken.

Globally, autism is said to be a US$700bn market, with the number of diagnosed cases growing at 2-3% a year.

One reason, of course, is that autism is being diagnosed formally in cases where the children might have been dismissed as being a ‘little bit different’.

Boys typically are diagnosed at five to six years old - and older for girls who are better at disguising the symptoms such as social interaction problems.

What if they were to be diagnosed earlier and more accurately? Earlier intervention would result in more effective treatment.

That’s the premise of smartphone-based diagnosis Blinklab, which listed on the ASX last month after raising $7m in an initial public offer.

Specifically, Blinklab claims earlier intervention can result in 40% to 60% reduction on costs later in life.

“The autism market is huge and it is growing every year,” says Blinklab CEO Dr Henk-Jan Boele.

“We don’t know exactly why, but certainly the accessibility to healthcare and the increased awareness of autism comes into it.”

He adds other unknown factors are likely to come into play.

Mr Leedman says many sceptics scoffed at the notion of a “neurotech for smartphone”, but as discussed below, this is not his first rodeo in terms of such ASX ventures.

About Blinklab

Applicable to both autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and possibly other disorders, Blinklab is an algorithm-based tool which carries out neuro-metric evaluations based on minuscule facial reflexes from the kid-in-the-smartphone-camera.

The technology was developed at Princeton University and Erasmus Medical Centre in The Netherlands and then acquired by the newly-incorporated Blinklab in November 2021.

The program was led by Prof Chris de Zeeuw and his PhD student Sebastiaan Koekkoek, who eventually co-founded the company along with Cornelius Pieter Boele (now Blinklab’s chief technology officer).

Commercially, the driving force behind Blinklab is Brian Leedman, a well-known Perth-based biotech entrepreneur.

A University of Western Australia MBA alumnus, Mr Leedman held senior marketing roles at Ernst & Young and Westpac before spending 10 years as a vice president at the ASX and Nasdaq-listed eye disease house Psivida.

He then co-founded Resapp, the first ASX-digital health stock to detect and distinguish respiratory diseases such as asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis, based on the user coughing into a smartphone. The tech was developed by the University of Queensland.

Despite Resapp failing to win FDA approval because of a dud trial, in late 2022 Pfizer acquired the company for $200m in a cash deal struck at a 130% premium. At the time, Pfizer’s interest lay in a test for Sars-Cov-2.

Blinklab listed on April 2, 2024. After listing, the company appointed Dr Boele as CEO. Dr Boele was assistant professor at Erasmus Medical Centre’s neurology department and a visiting researcher at the Princeton Neurology Institute.

Ahead of the IPO, Blinklab had spent -$4.4m developing the device.

The company says that Blinklab has been validated in 6,000 subjects, globally. While not yet approved, the test has been used by more than 30 clinical institutes, special schools and large healthcare providers.

Blink or you will miss it

The device is based on an established neurological test which measures the eyeblink response to “acoustic startles”: in other words, unexpected noises.

In short, the kids watch an enjoyable video and every so often they are surprised with a sound.

The child reflexively blinks within milliseconds. The stimulus is then changed to two sounds and the kid’s reaction will determine the diagnosis (including whether the condition is autism or ADHD).

Neurotypical kids will tend not to blink the second time but autistic kids will.

Dr Boele says the facial testing technique is not at all novel, but the smartphone delivery is.

“We are standing on the shoulders of giants in that we didn’t invent the test.”

Mr Leedman adds that there’s no health dangers in using the test: “the only safety risk is if the user drops the phone on their toe.”

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