Researcher-entrepreneur in the spotlight: Arno Penders

Arno Penders, co-founder of Creative Therapy, tells us about how he went from academician to entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs always seem like positive-minded homines universales who meet every challenge head-on. This series examines whether they really are. We will be looking specifically at entrepreneurs whose businesses sprouted from their studies. Was the launch of their business a smooth ride or an obstacle course? Does entrepreneurship run in the blood or is it something you can learn? And what made them step into the risky world of entrepreneurism? In today's story we will be asking Arno Penders of Creative Therapy all about the best moment to start being an entrepreneur, the importance of speaking up, and gaming.

Creative Therapy, a Ghent University spin-off with a mission

What if you could turn your passion into your profession? To many this is just a dream, but Arno Penders of Creative Therapy is one of the lucky ones that actually managed to do it. What started as an Industrial Design study project in 2015 is now an up-and-running spin-off of Ghent University. The goal of the study project was set by the Revaki research group at Ghent University: think of a creative way to make repetitive therapeutic exercises more challenging. 'We also noticed that it would be interesting for therapists to be better able to measure their patients' progress.' The answer that Creative Therapy came up with is Matti, a mat chock-ful of sensors that presents a challenge to children, offering them fun games that are adapted to their level of development and mobilise their whole body while simultaneously generating data useful to therapists. Arno didn't take the plunge and become an entrepreneur all by himself. Professor Jelle Saldien, PhD student Jamil Joundi, and Sébastien Michiels joined him in setting up Creative Therapy.

Fun & rehabilitation tailored to the patient

As with all good inventions, the product looks so simple that you wonder why no one thought of it earlier. ‘Now they sometimes use Wii consoles during therapy. But these are meant for normally developed children, so children with developmental disorders quickly lose motivation even though they really do their best’, says Arno. ‘What makes this mat unique is that you have a surface of 1.30 x 1.30 m that accurately measures pressure. We use patients' footsteps during gameplay to measure their balance, speed, accuracy ... These measurements are then used by therapists to adjust the games' difficulty to the patients' level. This way you can keep motivating them to improve.’ As a therapist, you can monitor everything much more efficiently. All data are displayed automatically, which really gives you more time to spend with your patients.

All data (balance, speed, accuracy, ...) are mapped automatically

All data (balance, speed, accuracy, ...) are mapped automatically

From idea to business

Just firing off ideas is one thing. But effectively turning a cool idea into a booming business takes insight, passion, and tenacity. Arno wasn't really born an entrepreneur, either, but he was totally fascinated with this product, Matti. So in the passion department all was OK. Which is no wonder considering both his parents work in the care sector. Creative Therapy enabled Arno to continue doing what he is good at: designing, looking for ways to improve products ... while still making a difference.

Insight through Dare to Venture

Insight is a different matter. ‘Finding the right people to help you with all of this is crucial. And at Ghent University's Dare to Venture they are experts!’ says Arno. Taking the optional subject of Dare to start was an incredible blessing for Arno and his companions on their journey as entrepreneurs. It gave them the freedom to explore further, to optimise Matti, and to set up their business model without any outside pressures. They still had to earn credits, of course, but that's quite different from generating revenue, paying wages, and ensuring a positive balance at the end of the ride.

Discovering new things every day

So you've graduated. Now what do you do? Here you are, a nice degree in your hands and the world at your feet. Do you resist the temptation of a nicely paid job to instead take the plunge into the unknown? ‘It does take perseverance, and it certainly isn't evident. But looking back, that's the ideal moment to take your chances. You have no mortgage payments to meet and no wife and kids to take care of. At that moment in your life you have total freedom. But you can't be afraid to blaze your own trail. There are many people out there that can lend you a helping hand, so by all means do talk about your project, because it may help you to find solutions. But simple it certainly is not. Being an entrepreneur means discovering new things every day, advancing step by step.’’

Creative Therapy offers creative solutions for children with developmental disabilities

Creative Therapy offers creative solutions for children with developmental disabilities

Finding a heartbeat in your work

Entrepreneurship definitely means fighting. You put in long hours, you business costs you money before it gives you any back, and your pay is certainly not something to write home about, but you do get a lot of life experience out of it. ‘When you're a student or doing a PhD, you enjoy a lot of freedom. You complete well-defined tasks within a set deadline and that's it. But when you're an entrepreneur, the final responsibility is one hundred per cent yours. You have to adapt every day, especially if you work with other people. You have to learn to work more efficiently, to decide who does what, to find structure ... At the same time it feels very good to be in charge yourself.’ ‘Finding a heartbeat in your work’, as Arno puts it so aptly.

Through TechTransfer to imec.istart

Still, Arno only got the courage to definitively enter the business world after taking a detour back into academia. Jelle Saldien, a professor of Industrial Design at Ghent University and co-founder of Creative Therapy, proposed that Arno do his PhD on ‘Smart products for health’. Being busy with this topic again and having a professor like Jelle encouraging him helped to get things moving. ‘Jelle also paved the way towards other solutions. For instance, he led us to TechTransfer at Ghent University. This department gave us legal assistance, helped us develop our business plan and start our spin-off, provided advice, and is still there for us whenever we need help signing contracts with Ghent University. This made it possible for us to participate in imec.istart. Now that was fun! It confirmed to us that many others shared our faith in our product.’

And now for the real work for Creative Therapy

As is the way with entrepreneurship, every step forward brings a new challenge. The coming months will be dedicated to the launch of their new product, Matti. Production is now the main focus, with the first mats arriving around the end of October. In the meantime, all the test-piloting contracts need to be drawn up and signed, and all the details for distribution and marketing need to be worked out in time for the real launch in January. And, of course, for all of this to take place, there has to be money. Starting Winwinner campaigns, designing projects, winning over investors ... In short, many balls to keep in the air. ‘Luckily, thanks to the imec.istart programme we receive professional mentoring and support from Antoine D’Hollander, our personal VAM (venture acceleration manager), and we feel like we're not alone.

Flash forward

To end, a quick flash forward. What does Arno aim to achieve with Creative Therapy in, say, five years? ‘If we're simply still around by then, it'll mean we're doing things right. But by then I especially hope to have found new ways to empower therapists. To accelerate and improve not only physical but also mental rehabilitation, and to thus help more people. That would be cool.’ Passion? I would think so. Wouldn't you?

Creative Therapy is looking for €60.000 growth capital to market their first product Matti. Have a closer look to their campaign here. Share this message with your friends and help Tinneke to make her dream come true and become a ballerina.

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