Spotlight: Wolk Heupairbags - Eliminate hip fractures!

Rinkel collega Janine
Janine Wilbrink
update: 14 October 2021
Wolk Heupairbag wordt omgedaan bij een oudere vrouw

Wolk has an important, social goal: to eliminate all hip fractures in the world. That's what they stand for. Every year there are 25,000 hip fractures in the Netherlands. This figure does not lie. Wolk's ambition? Bringing that 25,000 back to 0.


How do they do that? Matthijs Wiegant from Wolk explains it to us in this month's Spotlight! One thing is certain: it is an innovative product that has already won several awards and which healthcare employees and clients are extremely happy with.

Let's dive right in! Can you explain a bit about what Wolk does?
In the Netherlands, falling is a major problem among the elderly. Every year, about 100,000 elderly people end up in the Emergency Department (A&E) after a fall. One quarter of these incidents turned out to be a hip fracture. In other words: 25,000.

That's a huge number. And, in addition, a hip fracture is a very complicated and painful fracture with major consequences. In fact, 1 in 4 elderly people with a hip fracture will die from the complications within one year. And half will never be as mobile as before. They will be tied to, for example, a walker. A hip fracture therefore causes a lot of personal suffering for the person who has fallen.

But it also causes a lot of worries for the family: “Is my father/mother/grandfather/grandmother going to make it? Will everything be okay?” And a hip fracture puts more pressure on care. Someone with a hip fracture often ends up in a care home or in a rehabilitation center. If the fallen person stays at home, then it is the home care or a caregiver who has to provide extra care.

In short, it's just a huge problem.

Oh, that is indeed a very big problem! How did the idea for this solution, the Wolk hip airbag, come about?
The Wolk Hip airbag was invented in 2012 by Hans Schröder. His then 87-year-old mother fell regularly. After the umpteenth fall, Hans bought a swimming ring as Sinterklaas surprise. It said something along the lines of:

"Dear Mom,

If you put this band around your waist when you get out of bed,
you are no longer afraid of falling and you will probably walk well again.

In the unlikely event that you get out of balance,
then inflate this airbag, so you won't make any chunks."

Not much later she fell again and Hans was called again by the nursing home. Then he was done with it: he went to see if he could develop something for it. Hans came into contact with Filippo, a graduate of Technical University Delft, through an acquaintance. He asked him if he could develop something for it. The answer was, of course, “Yes!”. And so Wolk started developing the world's first hip airbag in 2013.

And what started out as somewhat of a joke has eventually grown into a product that actually works.

I read that in 2018 the airbag was launched for the first time. What was that period like for you, from idea to actual product?
We have been developing for about 5 years. The product was launched on the market for the first time in 2018. Before that, there were of course a number of earlier versions and prototypes.

Many people think that the Wolk works the same as a car airbag, but (fortunately for the user) that is not the case. It is certainly not a giant airbag that you can fall into like a pillow.

The product is actually a belt of fabric that you wear around your waist, with a flap on both sides. Air is blown into those flaps as soon as you fall to slow down your fall.

Wolk's sensors measure how the wearer moves 500 times per second. As soon as a deviation is measured by the algorithm, which means a fall, the airbag is activated.

At that moment, the flaps become about 4 cm thick: that is exactly enough to slow down the fall at the right time, so that the break does not occur. Then you land on it and press the air out again. Before you get up, the Wolk will be back to normal.

The great thing about the product in this way is that you can also wear it invisibly under your clothes.

After the first few years of development, at V1, the Wolk still had to be worn over the clothing. Then we noticed that people were ashamed that they needed such a product. People didn't want to wear it. So we had to go back to the drawing board.

The current version, from V2, you wear under your clothes. So you really don't see it. And even if you're wearing skinny jeans, your pants won't tear when the Wolk is activated.

For the Wolk we used existing techniques. Think of the mechanism for inflating an airbag: that is not new. We just used it in a different way. What is really new is the algorithm. We developed this ourselves.

Since the foundation of Wolk, have you learned an important lesson?
In the development time, we thought after 4 years the product was ready (V1). It was ready to go on the market: the technology had been developed and the algorithm was perfectly tuned.

We then had hundreds of hip airbags produced.

But then we found out that the product didn't run well because no one wanted to wear it. A number of healthcare institutions had already agreed to use it as a pilot. But the elderly who lived there did not want to wear it: they were ashamed and it was not comfortable enough.

So the target group we wanted to help didn't want to embrace it. That was a huge downer.

You may already see it coming, but the lesson we learned from this is that you should always keep your target audience in mind. Tune it in to them: include them in the process.

How was the name 'Wolk' (in English: 'Cloud') actually chosen?
You experience a cloud as something soft. When you're on the plane you see all those clouds: so soft, as if you could just jump in and it would catch you like the softest pillow ever.

So it's a metaphor! Although the Wolk hip airbag itself is not a big cloud or gigantic pillow.

If you had to pick one thing to designate as "Wolk's proudest moment," what would it be?
I think I speak for all my colleagues when I say that we are extremely proud of what we stand for. We have set a clear goal that we are committed to every day. And we also see that it has an effect. That's really beautiful.

We want to get rid of all hip fractures in the world. We will start in the Netherlands, but the rest of the world will certainly come. We will never be able to solve falls, but we will be able to solve the consequences.

Those 25,000 fractures per year in the Netherlands must be reduced to 0. We work hard for that every day.

If you see that many companies also choose to protect their clients by means of Wolk, then that does something to you. You know that you contribute to solving this social problem.

I wonder if you have a lot of competition? Are there other parties in the Netherlands or abroad with a similar product?
There is a company in Sweden that has developed airbags for the head. They started around the same time, so the idea is pretty much the same: to protect the wearer from falling.

But the market they serve is very different, so they can't really be called a competitor. They mainly focus on mountain bikers and cyclists. Since they make a lot of speed, it is also crucial for them to be protected against falls.

In the Netherlands we have no competition anyway. It is of course always the question of who or what you see as a competitor.

Before Wolk came on the market there were a number of other hip protection products; the best known of these is a pair of underpants with fall protection on the sides. This one isn't nearly as effective as the Wolk.

There is another similar product in France, although it resembles our V1.0 which was not well received, and products are also being developed in Asia, although they are more like a car airbag.

So there really isn't that much competition yet.

Could that be because of the medical world? For example, do certificates or proof have to be attached to it before you can sell something?
It is very important for medical products that they are scientifically substantiated. You have to demonstrate through a study that your product is effective. Healthcare organizations also ask for this. So we're working on that too.

They call it a “pilot study”. This is actually a preliminary study for a large-scale study. Our pilot study is being conducted by the Leiden University Medical Center.

Leading physicians and researchers are collaborating in this study with one of our customers who has been using the Wolk for a long time. This first study has shown that with the Wolk the risk of a hip fracture is reduced by 50% in any case.

The research has yet to be published and that will take some time. But it is very important for us to be able to demonstrate how effective the Wolk is.

Plus, it opens doors to many new organizations to use the Wolk as well. It is an important milestone for us.

Wolk Heupairbag om bij een man

The Wolk is now mainly used in care homes, do you expect hospitals to come to the door after this publication?
Well, that's definitely something we're looking at. For example, a GP prescribes a Wolk. But also that the Wolk in general is used in many different layers of care: such as specialized doctors and physiotherapists.

The scientific publication is only the beginning. A reason to carry out a major scientific study. This costs a lot of money, because it also has to be tested randomly at several large care organizations, for example.

When the major research has a positive outcome, it paves the way for massive expansion.

So in a few years you will grow even faster?
That's the plan yes! The research really does cover a longer period of time, about 2-3 years. But we also want to grow even more in nursing homes and home care, because there is still a lot to gain.

Plus, we also sell to private individuals. You can order a Wolk yourself via our website, although that is not something we are really focusing on at the moment. We will focus more on that in the near future.

There is also another important element for our (possible) growth: the Wolk is not yet reimbursed by your insurance. We naturally strive to have this included in the basic insurance or supplementary insurance.

You are of course ultimately responsible for marketing. It is not really traditional product. Do you have any other marketing challenges here?
Well, it is actually a 'normal' business-to-business (B2B) organization. That may sound crazy, but we sell it to the healthcare institution and they then use it with the client, the end user.

I was new to healthcare. This also has its challenges and you have to learn to deal with them. It took me a while to get used to it in the beginning. So it's not really that different for me in marketing, except for the sector.

The only thing that is different is the adoption process. A project manager from Wolk helps to ensure that organizations implement the Wolk in daily practice. So it's not like "Here's your hip airbags, good luck with it!"

I also happened to see on your website that Wolk also appeared in the Donald Duck? How did that come about?
Really don't know! One of the founders reads the Donald Duck and he came one morning with the Donald Duck we were in.

So we really don't know how that turned out, but of course we really like the publicity!

You use a Dutch national phone number from us. Now we are also curious how our service makes your life easier?
It may be a cliché answer, but the flexibility is many times greater than with a landline, because you can pick up the phone anywhere.

But also if our colleague who normally picks up the phone is on holiday or calls in sick.

It makes it easier for us to switch so flexibly. Because talking to our potential, new customers or current customers is and remains extremely important.

Then it is only a matter of starting the app, you put yourself in the forwarding and it is fixed. That's great, of course, that you have that flexibility.

Of course, larger companies often have a telephone operator, but for smaller companies such as ourselves, that is of course not the case. And that is precisely why Rinkel is so incredibly useful. Ideal for smaller entrepreneurs.

We spoke to

Marketing & Communications Manager

Matthijs Wiegant

32 years old 
Started at Wolk in January 2021
Responsible for marketing & communications