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Through Healthcare Lab, students working with Google Glass autism startup

Published: December 10, 2014

To help autistic children engage with the world and measure growth, Brain Power’s Ned Sahin turned to MIT Sloan

Brain Power’s software helps families with an autistic child use Google Glass to improve the child’s social engagement skills, language, and behaviors

Brain Power’s software helps families with an autistic child use Google Glass to improve the child’s social engagement skills, language, and behaviors

MIT Sloan students are collaborating with a Cambridge startup to transform how people with autism interact with their families, teachers, and caregivers.

The students are working with Brain Power LLC, which develops a range of software applications that run on Google Glass. The applications provide a “gamified” environment its developer says allows autistic children to engage the outside world and measure their growth. The MIT Sloan students are spending a semester researching the market opportunities and obstacles to the product’s success.

Steve Burt, MBA ’15, a member of the team working with Brain Power, volunteered with autistic children at the Boston non-profit Best Buddies before arriving at MIT Sloan. Burt said he was eager to work with an enterprise involved with autism at a critical moment its development.

“I am very interested in getting involved in real companies, to make a real difference,” Burt said. “This is an opportunity I don’t know if you’d get anywhere else.”

Burt and his MIT Sloan colleagues—Steve Fuller, LGO ’15, Arturo Romero, SF ’15, and Keisuke Suzuki, SF ’15—get this opportunity through Healthcare Lab, one of 16 MIT Sloan Action Learning programs. Each lab stresses learning by doing, matching teams of students with businesses to help solve their complex problems.

Brain Power—along with other organizations working on complicated health care problems—applied to work with a team of students. Like his teammates, Fuller then examined the semester’s host organizations and applied to work with Brain Power.

“I knew the lab classes and the hands-on experience was pretty unique to MIT, and I wanted to take part in that while I was here,” Fuller said. “For me, of all the labs, H-Lab was the one I wanted the most. I wanted a better understanding of the health care industry.”

Students, working with an MIT Sloan professor, spend a week or more working directly with the company on location. They’re given a defined goal, and are told to report back at the end of the semester—it’s as if the company hired a team of consultants with a specific deliverable due.

Dr. Ned T. Sahin launched Brain Power in October 2013, founding the company to commercialize neuroscience research and technology developed at MIT and Harvard. The company developed a software application suite, called the Empowered Brain, which is designed to run only on Google Glass.

   Dr. Ned T. Sahin, center, with the MIT Sloan Healthcare Lab teamDr. Ned T. Sahin, center, with the MIT Sloan Healthcare Lab team

Autism is a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders that can interfere with a person’s ability to socially connect with others, according to the National Institutes of Health. There is no cure for autism, and Sahin does not promote the Empowered Brain as such.

“We’re not treating a disease,” Sahin said. “But we are giving families what they have been asking for, the assessment and coaching of important life skills.”

The Empowered Brain software builds on a familiar concept. To overcome obstacles, people often measure what they eat, how long they sleep, and what distances they run. Sahin’s product allows people with autism, their families, and caregivers to also measure efforts to improve social engagement, eye contact, control of tics, and language skills. The Google Glass wearer using Empowered Brain is rewarded with points for achieving desired behavior.

There are already similar applications for tablets, but those absorb users, Sahin said. Empowered Brain combined with Google Glass allows people with autism to interact rather than stare into a computer screen, he said.

“These are training wheels for social engagement, for children who find it difficult,” Sahin said.

Sahin, who received a Master’s degree from MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences department in 2003, turned to the MIT Sloan students to research his market and make operational recommendations.

The Healthcare Lab project began the first week of October, and consumed at least 13 hours per week through the end of November. The team spent a week at Brain Power’s Cambridge office, working from morning until evening with Sahin and attending company meetings. They conducted telephone and in-person interviews about the application with parents and school administrators.

The team needed to know if school districts would allow Google Glass in the classroom. Texas school districts, which influence national education standards, said the device would not be a disruption.

“We found that everyone we interviewed was open to this technology in the classroom as long as it served an academic purpose,” Burt said.

However, while many autistic people would benefit from Empowered Brain, they learned a minority with severe autism would be too sensitive to touch and sound, Burt said.

They next had to figure out how customers would pay for Sahin’s product—and how he’d generate the revenue to sustain his business.

Sahin didn’t want to rely on health insurance, which varies from state to state. The team recommended Google and Brain Power charge a monthly fee for Google Glass and split the revenue until it is paid off. The arrangement would keep both companies invested in the product’s success, and attract and retrain customers by keeping the price low, Burt said.

Autism is a spectrum of disorders, diagnosed at different ages and treated differently from case to case. The Sloan team recommended Brain Power use a subscription-based revenue structure to give it the resources and engaged customers to customize its product for different users.

The team also delivered to Sahin uniform questionnaires he could use in the future to gather accurate data from parents, teachers, and health care providers, Burt said.

Fuller and Burt said their work at Brain Power was an opportunity to take what they learned in the MIT Sloan classroom into the real world.

“To just sit with Ned for a week and see him run a business day-to-day has really been beneficial,” Burt said. “It’s something five years from now I’ll be thinking about when I’m managing a team. I’ll be thinking how Brain Power was run and what I leaned.”