A team of Korean engineers, PhD-level neuroscientists, and ex-Googlers is taking on one of the most feared brain diseases we face in the modern age. Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) kills around 500,000 each year and the cost of care globally is estimated at US$220 billion per year. While this degenerative disease has no cure, YBrain has developed a solution for slowing the effects.
The team has already raised funding, built a fully operational prototype and will commence full clinical trials in Korea starting in July. YBrain aims to launch the service early in 2015.
I caught up with YBrain’s COO, Seungyeon Kim, to find out more about the new company.
“Ybrain has built wearable device based upon neuroscience technology to specifically target brain regions using electrical signals that aim to reduce the symptoms of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s,” Kim explained.
The device has two sensors embedded in the front of a wearable headband that provide electronic signals at 2 milliamperes (similar to 1/8 of the output of a smartphone). These stimulate brain activity in order to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s. The device is to be used for 30 minutes per day, five days per week, from the comfort of a patient’s own home.
The service will be targeting those who have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s as well as those in their 50s and 60s who have been diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment,” a segment who has a high likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.
Kim estimates that there is currently a Korean addressable market of US$100 million for their service, which he forecasts will increase to US$5 billion by 2017. Healthcare is one of the key areas remaining for innovation and mobile transformation, and it will be very interesting to observe how wearable medical devices and mobile platforms merge as the market moves through transformation. YBrain is clearly capitalising early on this seemingly enormous opportunity.
Of the four key pillars of healthcare (new drugs, personalised medicine, stem cell research, and medical devices), Korea appears to have a solid chance of being a global market leader in medical devices.
Soterix Medical provides a similar service to what YBrain is developing. The key difference is that in order to receive treatment from Soteriz Medical, patients must visit the hospital directly, whereas YBrain’s solution can be self-administered at home. Halo Neuroscience is another potential competitor. They are a team of MDs from Stanford who have had an early career in mobile in Silicon Valley and are building brain improvement devices. However, Kim claimed that YBrain’s expertise in hardware and its laser focus on Alzheimer’s set it apart from the competition.
YBrain is a PhD centric startup team including four PhD graduates and two master’s graduates and six possess graduate engineering degrees.
YBrain’s CEO holds a post-doctorate degree from the California Institute of Technology, in the field of neuroscience. Its CTO has a PhD in materials science and a work background in the chip design team at Samsung Mobile. Kim also holds a master’s degree in Neuroscience from KAIST, Korea’s science and technology university and has an experience in building businesses in the mobile space.
Kim, who recently left his role as the VP of Marketing at Inmobi to join YBrain, explained, “While mobile has been the buzz-word of the last five years, the next five will be dominated by the transaction between hardware and software. I wanted to be a leader of this new wave of technology and also fulfill a personal goal of making a real difference in people’s lives.”
He went on to say that with an extremely fierce competitive landscape in the app world, the next generation of successful startups from Korea will need to compete with hard-core technology products, rather than software services such as apps and games.
While Silicon Valley remains the key development ground for software engineering and platform services, starting a wearable devices company in Korea is an obvious option for YBrain. Korea is the homeland of Samsung and LG. These corporations provide excellent local partners for Korean startups at the cutting-edge of innovation, as well as providing a robust global track.
Due to legislation around medical devices and the need for extensive testing in a small market, YBrain will take a step by step global approach, and it has already secured US$700,000 in funding for the first stage. It hopes to close its series A round by the end of July 2014 to fuel final development stages and market launch.
Big Data and the future
Capitalising on new opportunities in the Big Data space, YBrain aims to develop additional offerings that use the Big Data technology to expand its product offering within two years. “Mobile Big Data is the holy grail, and this means not only collecting the Big Data, but making sure that the right data is being collected and used for the right purpose,” Kim explained.
Leaving Samsung for a startup
The status of Samsung in the global IT industry has been a major barrier to top Korean engineers considering entrepreneurship in the past, but things are changing. YBrain’s CTO, an ex-Samsung developer, was frustrated that he would not be permitted to take on a project like this within Samsung. His decision to leave the security of a career in Korea’s top corporate demonstrates a more general shift in Korea. This trend is now being accelerated as success stories begin to emerge from the startup ecosystem in Korea.
Recently, Kakao and Coupang have proven that Korean startups can achieve billion dollar valuations. “And as we see more success cases, we will see more people understanding and embracing the opportunity of entrepreneurship. The ecosystem already exists and is growing, now we need some more great companies to prove that we can grow to the next level,” said Kim.