The brain is really one of the last frontiers in medicine—there’s still so much we don’t understand about the gelatinous mass of grey and white matter that rests just above our shoulders. When I was working in healthcare, I always loved spending time in neuro clinic—whether it was taking care of two-year-olds suffering from seizure disorders or assisting grandparents heading into the twilight days of dementia, the inner workings of the brain never failed to fascinate me.
So, it was a total no-brainer (sorry, had to) that I wanted to chat up Sheryl Flynn—physical therapist, neuroscientist, and CEO of the L.A.-based Blue Marble Game Co., which is the very first company in the world to market digital games for rehabilitation from brain injury.
Among its other products, Blue Marble developed a role-playing adventure game, Treasure of Bell Island, in a partnership with the U.S. Army. Over 200 brain-injured veterans and other patients are currently playing the game, which aims to improve cognitive capability. In Bell Island, a gamer can hunt rabbits, seek shelter under swaying palms, then map out an escape from its deserted shores—and all the while, data is being sent to the clinician on how the patient is performing.
And, although my pre-teen prowess at Super Mario Brothers probably wouldn’t help me survive the rigors of Bell Island living—I still couldn’t wait to meet the woman behind the concept of splicing scientific data with a gaming platform to make recovery from combat injuries somewhat, well, entertaining. Say hello to Sheryl Flynn.
In 2008, you came up with the idea for Blue Marble and left academia. Was it difficult to transition from your role as a clinician and scientist to running your own start-up?
I found my background as a physical therapist and neuroscientist to be most helpful. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of neuroplasticity [the ability of brain cells to form new connections after injury] has been essential to our success.
Also, having lived the challenges of [clinical practice] and trying to provide the best care I could despite navigating insurance restrictions, I not only know the pain of healthcare—I’ve lived it. I empathize with clinicians and hope to provide them with affordable tools to enable them to provide excellent care.
I used to think I didn’t have any business skills, but, I’ve realized that I’m a good leader and I’ve surrounded myself with highly skilled, passionate people who round out my team. Also, I’m enrolled in the Babson College/Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program—and this has been fantastic.
I do believe it’s easier to be a healthcare entrepreneur with a clinical background. I don’t have to try and understand the pain and then dream up a solution—I’ve lived it, I know it, and I want to change it! While there are some days I wish I had gotten an MBA as well, I am grateful for the knowledge and skills I’ve obtained over the years.
I recently read about Atari’s “Puffer” (a pre-Wii Fit from the 80s that hooked an exercise bike to a game system)—so it seems like there’s a long history of healthcare gaming.
There is a history of development, but there hasn’t been much in the way of adoption. Since the Wii Fit had such great adoption, I believe games for health are here to stay. Now, we just need to develop better games with a sound scientific foundation.
What elements do you feel are necessary to make a healthcare game a success?
I think the two most important things that make a successful healthcare game are contributions from a transdisciplinary team of clinicians and researchers and developers (game designers, programmers, and artists). Without these two groups working together and learning to speak each other’s language—we will fail.
Continuous improvement is also a critical factor. Bell Island was designed with a great deal of input from patients, their caregivers, and healthcare providers. We are using current feedback to refine the level of difficulty and to [improve] the communication between healthcare providers and the patient. As our database grows, we can tweak the game to improve medical outcomes.
Ensuring a game is fun to play is also crucial. If the game isn’t fun, patients won’t play and the medical outcomes will be impossible to achieve.
Do you find the healthcare community resistant to incorporating technology into the new world of healthcare?
My experience is that it is about 75/25 in favor of adopting new technology. Once clinicians realize that we are not trying to replace them, but rather trying to provide tools to help them better care for their patients, they are open to the discussion. We have had many [clinicians] ask us, “When is this going to be ready? We need it now!” So, our team feels that the time is right.
What are your predictions for growth in the healthcare technology sector?
Mega growth! Adoption of smartphones and tablets is skyrocketing. Computing ability is soaring. People want to take more control of their health and healthcare. It’s a perfect storm—people want it, they aren’t afraid of it, and it can improve healthcare.
Lastly, who should we be following on Twitter in the healthcare gaming space?
Many of the companies we feel are poised to make an impact in the market are in stealth mode. @Jintronix is gathering steam and hopefully will be doing some amazing things in 2013. Although not a game company, people in the know will watch @WestHealth to see what big moves they have in store for 2013.
Check in for the last installment of our healthcare entrepreneur series in two weeks, where I’ll introduce you to Jeanne Pinder, founder and CEO of Clear Health Costs. The company has been called the “Kayak.com for healthcare”— a web-based place where you can comparison shop for prices on medical procedures.