| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Technology Meets Psychiatry with Local Startup CogCubed

At this point, it seems there are few areas that technology hasn't saturated. Entertainment, communication, business, manufacturing--every industry is transforming thanks to the constant tap, tap, tap of its users on screens and keyboards.
Among major modern fields of endeavor, though, psychiatry seems less touched by tech than others. There are some consumer apps and educational software options available, but when it comes to diagnosis and treatment, the potential for tech-driven change seems vast.
That's where local startup CogCubed hopes to make its mark. Founded by husband-and-wife team Kurt Roots and Monika Heller, the company got its start when Roots, a technologist, was showing psychiatrist Heller some innovations out of the MIT Media Lab, a think tank for new technology. The lab had developed a wireless, interactive game system called Sifteo that allowed players to use cube-shaped devices.
Although the device's developers likely saw their innovation mainly as a new game platform, Roots and Heller took a different viewpoint: Sifteo cubes could be used as a diagnostic tool as well, particularly for assessing whether children and adolescents have ADHD.
Heller, who focuses on that population in her practice, envisioned a breakthough. "There aren't enough child and adolescent psychiatrists in the nation, and that makes diagnosis difficult," she says. "When Kurt showed me this, I had about twenty different ideas about how we could use the technology."
Roots adds that the devices, with sensors on all four sides and a touchscreen display, can capture more data than anything else that's on the market, particularly survey-type apps.
"Many diagnostic tools today are very boring, and with some of these computer-based programs, people stop engaging in the tests, and that can lead to an incorrect diagnosis," he says. "We took on the challenge to do something brand new."

With Roots' background in technology development, the pair began to develop their own game-style apps, and also brought in Jaideep Srivastava, a professor in computer science at the University of Minnesota. With a strong advisory board as well, Roots and Heller started creating games that focus on cognitive areas.

Your Brain on Apps

CogCubed isn't the only company looking to bring technology to the psychology and psychiatry realm, and several notable startup efforts have been launched in the past few years.
One of the most high-profile ventures came earlier this year from Center City-based addiction treatment organization Hazelden, which created an iPhone application that provides mobile support to those in recovery.
Other apps include Live Happy, which uses the principles of positive psychology to help users develop new habits that make them happier and more resilient. For those who want to explore more clinical topics, PsycExplorer gathers the latest research, blog posts, and news and presents the results in a mobile app.
But CogCubed differs from those efforts in that it blends clinical trials into the mix. Most, if not all, of the apps in development or recently released seem to have been developed with a theory in place, but without much scientific-level testing to back up their efficacy.
In contrast, CogCubed aims to gain traction through extensive use of clinical data, Heller says. "We're setting ourselves apart, and we're being forthright with the FDA about what we're planning to do," she notes. "The whole process takes much longer that way, but we think it'll definitely be worth the effort if we can bring this major new diagnostic tool into widespread use."
CogCubed's games are 15 percent more accurate than what's on the market for diagnosing ADHD, according to an FDA-monitored phase 1 clinical trial. The company is ramping up for phase 2 trials, and already looking ahead at other disorders that could benefit from game-based diagnostic tests.
Roots notes that games could be helpful for understanding early-stage dementia and Alzheimer's, for example.
The company could also spearhead a larger trend, Heller adds: "The psychiatry community doesn't interact with the technology development community, and it's something I never thought I'd do, even with being married to Kurt. But it's been absolutely fun to work on this."
For Roots, the chance to solve problems in a discipline that doesn't have much technology interaction is particularly intriguing. "Technology is an enabler to solving problems," he says. "When there's an opportunity like this, it's exciting."
Part of a Larger Landscape

Developing their app within the Twin Cities innovation community has yielded benefits, Roots notes. "Building a sustainable business here is one of the strengths of the Midwest. We're in a seed round, and the visibility we're gaining is helpful."
The company got that spotlight though making the finalist round of the Minnesota Cup, and has also been selected as a finalist in the Healthcare and Startup categories for the Minnesota High Tech Association's Tekne Awards.
Minnesota Cup co-founder Scott Litman notes that Minnesota has become a great environment for app developers like CogCubed, thanks to rapid evolution in technology and a greatly reduced cost of entry for tech entrepreneurs. He says, "This can mean smaller teams, lower investment cost, and greatly reduced time to market."
Tech entrepreneurs like Roots and Heller aren't "on an island," Litman says. "They are part of a community, learning from  one another and forming teams. They're collaborating to make the next great idea or startup."
For CogCubed, this is just the beginning, and their efforts are a nod toward the strong startup community that's finally getting firmly established in the Twin Cities, one innovation at a time.

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.

Photos courtesy CogCubed
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts