A couple years ago, Leigh Rolnicki, the executive director of LoveU2Pieces autism center in Brentwood, Missouri, was visited by the chief executive of Brain Power, a Cambridge startup working on technology to help people with neurological disorders.
Kids in Rolnicki’s center and their parents came, too, for the presentation as grade school-age children tried out Brain Power’s main project – the then-experimental Google Glass spectacles that were loaded with special software to assist and coach people on the autism spectrum.
“They were traveling the U.S., like in an RV, and came to my center,” said Rolnicki, recalling the several hours she spent trying out the computerized glasses and meeting the team from Brain Power, including neuroscientist CEO Nedim T. Sahin, who commonly goes by Ned.
The glasses and software packages – now being sold under the name Empowered Brain – impressed Rolnicki, she said, because they weren’t intrusive and kept the children who have difficulty socializing looking up and making eye contact and not down at a tablet computer.
“I loved the concept that they developed,” she said over a phone interview this week. “The way people who had sensory issues could calm down… It is very empowering.”
Now, Brain Power is betting on educators and therapists like Rolnicki to become potential customers as it seeks to sell its software suites to schools and educational centers across the country. Since January, the company “started in real earnest” to pitch the product to the kindergarten through college market, said Sahin.
So far, the startup has met with various New England area schools – a middle school in Plymouth, an elementary school in Duxbury, a high school in Lawrence, a charter school in Cambridge and Landmark College in Vermont – to introduce Empowered Brain, said Sahin.
This marks a turning point for Brain Power, which formed in October of 2013, said Sahin, as it plans to ramp up sales of its lead product, after spending years in research and development, testing software tools and conducting research for autism, brain injuries and other neurological conditions. The glasses and software packages were just released just in November of 2017.
Empowered Brain – formerly called Empower Me – costs schools around $2,000 up front with a subscription fee of around $30 a month, with prices varying depending on the size of the order. Unlike its home version, the educational software suite also includes a system to help teachers automatically generate evaluation reports required by law for special education students.
Targeting a slice of the education industry is a well-worn path for technology companies. Since its introduction about 8 years ago, the iPad has become a common tool in U.S. classrooms, including for special education students, and now Google Chromebooks are quickly becoming a head of the class, according to a recent report by Futuresource Consulting, which saw annual sales worldwide of mobile computers in the K-12 market reach 29.2 million units last year.
“The U.S. market has led the market over the past decade in getting mobile personal computers in the classroom,” said Ben Davis, a senior market analyst at U.K.-based Futuresource, where he leads the company’s research into computing tools in K-12 education markets globally.
Augmented reality and virtual reality technology are also becoming more widespread. The market for the two technologies in health care alone is expected to create some $3 billion in revenue in 2023 globally, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com.
But Glass’s vision of the future appears a bit foggier, and betting on smart glasses could be trickier. “It’s not something that’s really come on my radar,” said Davis, on a call from his office outside London this week, noting there are niche markets for the smart glasses, but that “it’s not sizable enough to write a report on.”
However, using the computerized spectacles makes sense, said Sahin, in part because they keep kids’ eyes up and alert, and they allow for “augmented reality.”
Also, this nontraditional approach of using Glass seems to fit Brain Power. In many ways, the company is not a traditional startup. An example: It received most of its early financial backing from government grants as opposed to venture capital groups.
Its main funding sources include a $400,000 grant from the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs of the U.S. Military; a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Defense to study traumatic brain injury; and around $140,000 in crowd funding. The company also has an undisclosed grant and partnership with Google, said Sahin, and it also recently entered a technology agreement with Amazon that will allow it to “scale up.”
In addition, the company has a partnership with Affectiva, an emotional artificial intelligence technology company.
An estimated one in 68 people are believed to have some form of autism, a condition causing social, communication and often behavioral difficulties, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Using artificial intelligence and special emotion-detecting technology, Brain Power’s applications include game-like programs such as one called Emotion Charades that aims to teach users to more easily identify and understand emotions while communicating with another person. Other programs use augmented reality technology to help people learn to manage transitioning from one place or situation to the next, and to help users improve their eye contact. Meanwhile, the software tracks the user’s performance, giving points for meeting goals, and measures movements, eye contact and focus.
The devices appear promising, said Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a clinical professor of pediatrics and neurology at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. But, Dr. Zimmerman, who hasn’t tried Brain Power’s products but has reviewed the company’s website and promotional material at the request of a reporter, said “you have to take everything with a grain of salt.”
More research is needed to show the effectiveness of the software products, he said, adding, however, that the idea is intriguing and appears promising, especially for so-called high-function autistics.
“If they get enough evidence, they might be able to get support from insurance,” pointed out Dr. Zimmerman, noting this could help reduce costs for families and schools, which he felt sound “pricey.”