BrainCheck raises $3 million for app to monitor brain health

A Houston-based startup called BrainCheck has raised $3 million in seed funding for an app that helps users understand, by simply playing some games on an iPad, if they or a loved one may have suffered a concussion.

Founded in 2014 by Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, BrainCheck adapts to an interactive format the accepted assessments that neuropsychologists and neurologists administer to patients offline.

If concussion sounds like a health problem limited to pro football players, it is not, said Eagleman, and BrainCheck CEO Yael Katz, who has a PhD in biological informatics.

There are 1.6 million to 3.8 million sport-related concussions, also known as mild traumatic brain injuries, in the U.S. every year, according to data cited by the Journal of Head Trauma and Rehabilitation.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman, founder of BrainCheck.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman, founder of BrainCheck.

In 2009, Washington state became the first state to attempt to stem the public health epidemic of concussion among student athletes with its Zackery Lystedt Law, requiring policies for the “management of head injury in youth sports.”

Since then, the issue has gotten more notice thanks to a PBS Frontline documentary in 2013, League of Denial, and a Hollywood film called Concussion last year starring Will Smith.

Now, the president’s 2017 budget proposal requests $5 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to establish and run a National Concussion Surveillance System, which would allow the organization to more precisely grasp how mildly traumatic brain injuries are effecting the U.S. population.

Data gathered by BrainCheck could contribute to such studies and our collective understanding about neurocognitive health, the founders said.

While BrainCheck has seen early traction in the U.S., selling to school districts, athletic trainers and families whose kids participate in sports, the company is seeking to expand internationally and beyond concussion monitoring, Katz said.

Specifically, BrainCheck is developing features and functionality to assess older users at risk of dementia.

BrainCheck CEO Yael Katz.

BrainCheck CEO Yael Katz.

There are 46.8 million people suffering with dementia worldwide today, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International. “This is projected to double over 20 years,” the CEO noted, reaching 74.7 million by 2030. Dementia assessments will be accessible through BrainCheck as of January 2017.

BrainCheck is currently part of the Texas Medical Center accelerator (TMCx) at Texas Medical Innovation Center.

An advisor to the center and investor in BrainCheck’s seed round, Brett Giroir, said, “There is an absolute need for a simple, personal take-home neurologic assessment that is complete and has complexity and sophistication to it, but can be done rapidly and by anyone, for dementia, especially.”

He sees BrainCheck as democratizing sophisticated, psychological neuro-testing in a way that can help an aging world population to identify and treat dementia earlier than ever before.

Giroir, who was previously the director of DARPA’s science office, lauded BrainCheck’s “scientific  pedigree,” and the potential extensibility of its app.

“Beyond concussion and dementia, there are things you can study like the side effects and safety of drugs, and polypharmacy. There are things that can cause people not to remember well, or lose coordination that are not brain injury related, or dementia but would be related to the drugs that they are taking.”

The BrainCheck app can detect signs of concussion or dementia in users over time.

The BrainCheck app can detect signs of concussion or dementia in users over time.

Rather than move into new areas of digital technology, like virtual reality, Katz and Eagleman say BrainCheck will invest its seed capital and resources into doing the most it can via the mobile platform.

The company’s app is a health “tracking” app, rather than diagnostic tool for clinical use at this point. But the company intends to work with the FDA to become a class 2 medical device, soon.

But even without further classifications, Eagleman said the app is making a positive difference to families simply because it can be used at home. He said:

“With dementia, especially, most people don’t go into a neurologist until it is too late. If you ever have someone with this problem in your life, you’ll see there’s a lot of denial and rationalization that happens. People will say they are feeling sleep deprived, and that’s why they couldn’t remember a word, or had trouble putting their clothes on. A lot of that is because nobody wants to go to the doctor, it’s just too much of a pain in the ass. We put this in people’s hands, and they can take the best of what’s known in the science and have that at home.”