How this team is creating tech to help patients control their asthma

9 Oct 2019

Susan Kelly. Image: TechWatch

Airbrio is one of 12 finalists in the upcoming Invent 2019 competition. TechWatch’s Emily McDaid spoke to CEO Susan Kelly to find out more.

The UK has one of the highest levels of asthma sufferers in the world. Airbrio is a Northern Irish business looking to revolutionise asthma treatments with a device and sensor technology, combined with a software platform that uses machine learning and data analytics.

Nearly half of asthma patients do not administer their medication properly, according to a 2017 research study, and asthma treatments in total cost the NHS £1.1bn annually.

“Pharmaceutical companies have invested millions in new inhaler design, but the main root of the problem is that inhalation still isn’t done correctly,” says Airbrio CEO Susan Kelly.

The company’s device attaches to an inhaler to inform patients whether they are inhaling correctly with a light system. The data is sent to an app that coaches good technique and reminds patients when to take their medication.

The platform will capture user data and use machine learning techniques to inform patients – and, crucially, their healthcare professionals – on how well they take their medication over time and when they are at risk of having an asthma attack.

‘Environment for innovation’

Airbrio’s founders approached Kelly early in 2018 and she joined the team later that year as CEO. Dr Jim Harkin and Prof Liam McDaid, both based at Ulster University, head up the technical and R&D work of the team, and have been instrumental in developing the original device and the platform.

“I could see immediately how this could benefit people suffering from a variety of respiratory conditions – not just asthma, but COPD and cystic fibrosis,” Kelly says.

I ask her whether she ever expected to be an entrepreneur. “Not really,” she says. “I thoroughly enjoyed my career in pharma, specialising in market access and I’m loving this new role – it’s exciting and challenging.”

Kelly works four days a week in another healthcare role while being at the helm of Airbrio. She’s also the mother of four sons, ranging widely in age from 10 to 27.

“There’s never a dull moment,” she says. “We’re always out doing drop offs or pick ups, or maybe cycling or at the beach. My husband and I joke that we did 25 years straight of bedtime stories.”

Being based in Northern Ireland is an important element for Airbrio, with firm roots in Ulster University and the Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre.

“We are based in Derry – everything about Airbrio is made in Northern Ireland. We are part of the vibrant life and health sciences community in the north-west – we want to see that flourish, with more jobs being created.

“There is a great environment for innovation in NI – we feel that we’re in the right place at the right time,” Kelly concludes.

About Airbrio:

  • Sensors in the device detect when it’s shaken and actuated, when medicine is dispensed and when it’s inhaled
  • Cloud-based machine learning aggregates patient data with environmental data, such as air quality and temperature, to predict when people might lose control of their asthma
  • The UK commercial model will involve obtaining the device through a healthcare provider
  • Phase 2 clinical testing will begin early next year, with real-world pilot studies in GP practices in Northern Ireland running alongside a three-centre UK clinical trial


By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch.

Updated, 1.05pm, 10 October 2019: This article was updated to clarify the number of asthma patients who do not administer their medication properly, referencing a 2017 study.

Airbrio is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Catalyst, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2019 will take place on Thursday 10 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland