By Avery Guest
In 2011, Sarah McEwen’s grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s. At the time, McEwen was also studying cognitive neuroscience during her postdoctoral fellowship at UC Los Angeles, which touched on neuroplasticity and its impact on various brain disorders. Her study made her curious about how to alter neuroplasticity in Alzheimer’s patients.
She pursued research with both physical and mental exercise, attempting to understand how these practices could influence neural plasticity, potentially even ‘reorganizing’ the brain. Robert McEwen, her husband, was in the tech space, with experience in product management across various industries. Together, they recognized the potential for collaboration between neuroscience and technology. Genius Gyms followed.
We connected with the duo to further discuss their journey with UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute and Genius Gym’s future.
Year Founded: 2013
Currently, the team is small with a group of outsourced contractors and advisors, with the McEwen’s running the show while also holding onto their full-time positions. Sarah works as an Associate Professor at the John Wayne Cancer Institute and the Director of Research for the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute. Robert is currently alternating as a product management consultant for a tech firm in Los Angeles.
Headquarters: San Diego, California
Technology: Genius Gyms’ technology combines exercise with cognitive training. More specifically, it is an application that engages users by providing both physical guidance and neurocognitive games. The users are engaged physically and mentally, building up their cardiovascular capacity and brain functioning at the same time. The program aims to help reduce/delay the negative effects of aging on the brain.
The mobile application creates training programs for the user in accordance with their athletic abilities offering levels easy, intermediate, and genius (expert). After each session, there is a summary screen comparing today’s performance with the previous one. This promotes competition not against others, but against the individual users themselves.
The technology is evidence-based, using studies to validate its effectiveness. With additional studies, they hope to validate the application’s use for improving mental health and cognitive function for OCD, ADHD, PTSD, and anxiety in addition to just Alzheimer’s prevention. While the company was founded to focus on neurodegeneration, the technology is not just useful for those already experiencing symptoms. Anyone –at any age– can benefit from training that focuses on the mind and body simultaneously.
While athletic training usually focuses on physical exercise, there are very few training programs that implement cognitive training for their athletes. If specific sports teams were to incorporate a technology like Genius Gym’s into their training, this would differentiate the players from those without it, according to Sarah. She said this presents a unique business opportunity, allowing for external partnerships.
That being said, the company functions as both a B2B and B2C platform. Clinics can purchase a given amount of subscriptions for their patients. This means clinicians can keep better track of their patients’ progress via the app. But consumers can also purchase the application straight from the app store, and subscribe directly.
Market Potential: Sarah claims Genius Gyms as “The World’s First Neuroscience and Cardio Application,” indicating that the technology fills a rather unique niche in the market, found somewhere between fitness applications and neuro care.
According to Polaris Market Research, the fitness application market was valued at $3.28 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 21.8%. These applications are particularly popular among millennials, with a growth of over 87% and app usage twice as high as other categories. Genius Gyms offers an application that provides fitness plans, meaning that it exists in a space where growth is pertinent.
Meanwhile, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, there were around 5.8 million Americans aged 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s in 2020. This means that 10% of people 65+ are living with this neurological disorder. With 40% of cases being preventable, an easily accessible application that helps prevent neurodegeneration has potential to make a rather large difference, Sarah said.
Inspiration: Since Sarah studied neuroscience while her grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, she wondered what could have been done differently, and if there was something in her studies that could help her understand the disease better. So, she conducted research that revolved around improving neural plasticity, such as exercise, which has been proven to help with brain reorganization. Sarah worked as a personal trainer and began toying with different methodologies that could combine both neural and physical training. After working with potential users, she figured an application might be the best route to take.
Challenges: The biggest challenge faced by the McEwen’s has been time constraints. Working full-time jobs – both at the director level, and raising two kids (also during a global pandemic)- has left them with little time to spare for a side project.
It has additionally been hard to produce creative content given that the team is rather small. All funds have come from their own incomes.
Robert said that they are “waiting for the patent, given the intellectual property we need to protect the technology, so we cannot launch until the patent is received.”
Funding: The McEwen’s have self-financed all of Genius Gyms, from the application development all the way to the patent. While Sarah works with the National Institutes of Health to receive grants for studies, these funds do not go towards Genius Gyms itself. The duo has had to find time outside of their 40-hour work weeks to work on their startup with no pay. They hope to seek formal funding once the application is ready for purchase, in hopes of going to market without giving up any equity.
Mentors: Robert thanks his UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School mentor Eamonn Galvin who helped him grow his business acumen and launched his career at eBay. Sarah thanks Dr. Giselle Petzinger of USC who was a key mentor in her neuroscience field. Thanks to the Qualcomm Institute, they were connected with Michael Collins, who has guided them throughout their entrepreneurship experience.
On the Horizon: In the coming months, Genius Gyms will be available for purchase on the Apple and Android app stores. The application functions on a subscription basis, allowing users to utilize all of the cognitive games, expanding upon the small set of exercises that comes with the freemium model.
The founders also want to create an open API that providers could use, in place of the standard “after visit summaries” that patients received after a doctor’s visit. Ideally, Genius Gyms would work as a digital health app, similar to that of Akili, which created the first-and-only prescription ADHD video game treatment approved by the FDA.
The Genius Gyms application is also being used in a few pilot studies. One at the University of Alabama, Birmingham is evaluating how the app can help with brain fog experienced as a result of COVID-19. At UCLA, the technology is being used to measure changes in patients with ADHD. While these studies are not directly related to Alzheimer’s, they could have profound implications on how we treat ADHD and brain fog.
“This could open more doors for Genius Gyms, broadening our consumer base,” Sarah said.
San Diego Tech Ecosystem: The McEwen’s believe the San Diego tech ecosystem provides “great potential” for startups. Sarah said that once you meet a few entrepreneurs, you are in the “entrepreneurial club,” claiming that, “From here, many more community members will reach out, assisting your startup with its development.”
Tacos: The McEwen’s favorite taco place is SpitFire Tacos in La Jolla
Editor’s Note: TritonTech is an original series on UC San Diego created by Fresh Brewed Tech that showcases the innovative ideas born in the halls of academia that are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond.