Korean Healthtech Startup Closing In On Cure For Alzheimer's
Korea’s startup landscape remains partial to gaming. Demand has been growing at such a staggering clip that the industry now accounts for 90% of the country’s mobile app revenues. The government is also providing financial assistance — to the tune of $90 million — to help shoulder rising demand. But though many welcome such incentives, the figures indicate that the trend is nearing its saturation point, and suggest that it may be time for the country’s fleet of young entrepreneurs to be leveraging their talents in a slightly different direction, one that favors long-term sustainability, and a means of overcoming the alarming rate of failure that startups and small businesses have been receiving as of late.
One healthtech startup in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district feels that product technology is not only a more beneficial direction to take, it’s a necessity for South Korean startups if they want to achieve longevity.
Headed by its co-founders, CEO Kiwon Lee and COO Seungyeong Kim, Ybrain has developed medical wearable devices for patients suffering early onset Alzheimer’s and is building a mobile healthcare platform for detailed analytics for disease diagnosis and personalized treatments and services. They have already been approved by the FDA for clinical trials, and have secured $4.2 million in Series A funding round last summer from several leading Korean VCs.
“Our technology is basically a very non-invasive form of brain stimulation through a series of activations,” says Lee. “Our ambition is to challenge one of the toughest problems humanity faces today. Cancer is nearing a cure. But we don’t yet have a cure for Alzheimer’s, even with today’s most advanced medical technology.”
The venture was triggered from an injury Lee’s father suffered that left him intellectually impaired. With a team comprised of experts, all with extensive experience within the medical industry, and some of whom have loved ones affected by Alzheimer’s, Ybrain’s wearable medical devices are intended to treat both patients with neurological impairment and patients wishing to maximize brain function.
“The reason we are operational today is because there is opportunity to challenge technology and find a cure,” asserts Lee.
The company will release two devices: Brain Wellness and Brain Fullness to treat disorders and enhance brain function, respectively. There are 96 patients currently being treated for depression, to testing the product. Ybrain is currently seeking KFDA approval to get their devices to the market by early 2016 to cure depression.
“Our devices increase the brain’s resting state ever so slightly so neurons can fire signals on their own with very little intervention,” Lee says. “This minimally invasive approach is favorable for those against taking pills to combat symptoms.”
Neurological modulation involves providing a push for the brain’s synapses to function optimally. Lee points out that they are not only out to treat a series of degenerative neurological disorders but also aid in the improvement of normal neurological functioning, conditioning the brain to work at higher levels.
“Essentially, Ybrain’s wearable tech sends out a weak electronic signal to minimally increase the brain’s resting phase so that neurons can send signals on their own, more naturally without any failure,” Lee explains.
Ybrain’s patented technology couldn’t come at a more opportune time. The Obama administration recently set aside close to $3 billion in funding for its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Lee is confident that their technology will allow for the study and treatment at a fraction of the cost.
“Our patented headsets can be worn at home and monitored from a lab, and will help alleviate a series of neurological disorders, including addiction, trauma, dieting, and schizophrenia,” says Lee. “This will allow for us to gather large amounts of data; the number of brain waves through our technology and use that information at nearly one tenth the cost.”
Two products are to hit the market next year: a diagnostic platform that will work in tandem with the wearable to help doctors pinpoint the root of neurological disorders, and a wearable brain wave product — the first of its kind — for depression.
“The U.S. government claims that they can save up to 80% of its medical cost through these wearable technologies,” says Lee. “This gave us pause and made us assess the benefits we can give consumers.”
Despite Ybrain’s ambitions, they are not alone in the race for a cure; several other companies with similar strategies will soon have products available to patients in need. However, Lee is quick to point out that his technology provides a much more favorable method of tackling one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
“Many of our competitors products are heavy and awkward, difficult to operate, and only operational by experts,” Lee asserts. “When we started the company we felt that everyone should be able to use it by themselves. Our device is connected to our platform, so brain management, neuromodulation can be operated remotely and closely studied to assess brain wave patterns.”
Kim is also quick to point out that Korean startups are missing the bigger picture, and that young entrepreneurs going against the grain should not be dissuaded by hype and submit to current startup trends.
“It takes a lot of time, money, and energy to prove that our technology actually cures neurological disorders,” Kim notes. “But if you have big purpose and big dreams, big investors will express interest.”
Such high hopes are certainly inspiring and enough to question the government’s recent appropriation of funds to an industry already teeming with developers, and to spark debate as to where the future of Korea’s current line of startups may lead.
Gregory Curley is a freelance writer and founder of GBC Media, a global marketing communications company based in Seoul, South Korea.