Munich-based company, brainboost, has developed a way of treating people with various disorders using neurofeedback videogames.
Within its games, users can control how the game plays out using their own brainwaves.
The startup uses its games to treat everything from stress, depression, burnout, epilepsy, and migraines to autism, sleep disorders, dyslexia, and anxiety attacks.
It's a Thursday afternoon in a doctor's office not far from Munich Central Station and I'm sat in a comfortable leather armchair. On my head is a red net with twelve electrodes attached, measuring my brainwaves in real time.
Before me, there's a large flat screen with a Buddha sat in lotus position. Slowly, the figure lifts off the ground and begins to float, but there's no game controller anywhere to be seen; I'm controlling the figure with my brainwaves.
Philipp Heiler, who is sat beside me, is a doctor as well as the founder and managing director of startup, brainboost. Together with his brother Tobias — a sports scientist and economist — the 29-year-old founded the neurofeedback company at the beginning of 2016.
"In neurofeedback, brainwaves are analysed in real time by a computer, they're divided into different frequencies and then transmitted to a screen," said Heiler.
"The person sat in front of the screen can therefore see their own brain activity, the brain observes itself. The brain waves are recorded using EEG or electroencephalography, a medical method for measuring brain activity — so how can you use it to control a video game?"
In neurofeedback, the brain gives itself feedback
Heiler showed me six types of brain waves, which are shown on the screen in diagrams.
There were curves for strained and stressed brain states, for very calm and slow activities and for states somewhere in between.
Depending on the sort of brain activity the person is displaying during training, Heiler can choose to reward them within the game. If he sets the program to a particular frequency, medium frequency for example, the Buddha starts to float every time the brain follows this activity for a certain period of time.
Heiler explained that by tracking its own activity on the screen, the brain gets constant feedback on its own activity.
This process can't actually be controlled by thoughts or one's own will, it mostly happens subconsciously — however, the brain knows when it's being rewarded from seeing the Buddha float. Therefore it tries to oscillate as long as possible in the frequency that causes the floating.
Brainboost can use this mechanism to precisely treat different diseases or to improve performance in a given area. If there is too much of a certain brain activity, such as depression, patients can use neurofeedback to train themselves into "healthier" brain waves.
For example, if a manager wants to increase his or her ability to concentrate, he or she can use the technology to promote the appropriate brain activity. In the video below, you can see another neurofeedback game developed by brainboost.
Neurofeedback helps against depression, burnout, and ADHD
Brainboost also uses its methods to treat depression, burnout, epilepsy, and migraines — and that's not all. The company treats chronic stress, autism, and sleep disorders too — and they even assist with dyslexia, and anxiety attacks.
Performance feedback, as opposed to neurofeedback, increases cognitive abilities such as concentration, attention or creativity, or can increase self-confidence, persuasiveness and alleviate stress or anxiety. The target group for this type of treatment tends to include managers, musicians, or athletes, as well as schoolchildren and students.
Typically, one brainboost treatment comes in at around $100 per 50 minute session. Treatment usually lasts around four months but the performance feedback can also be used on a more long-term basis.
"We're a hybrid of medical practice and company," said Heiler. "On the one hand, we want to treat patients with neurofeedback training. On the other, we also want to further develop the technology behind it and find neurofeedback solutions ourselves."
The two founders are now doing this with 15 employees from a wide variety of different backgrounds. In an open-plan office right next to the practice rooms, the two physicians work with psychologists, software developers, and an electrical engineer, as well as someone responsible for marketing, sales, and communication.
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Brainboost's cash flow has been positive since day one
Brainboost covers large parts of the value chain itself: the Munich-based company develops software, hardware, and treatment methods on its own.
The startup designed the training programs together with freelance software developers and the hardware is assembled by an electrical engineer.
"We weren't satisfied with the neurofeedback applications and devices currently available on the market for every application," explained Heiler. "That's why we quickly decided to develop what was needed for our field of application ourselves."
Brainboost is also successful in economic terms — the company is completely self-financed and has had a positive cash flow since day one.
In its first year, the practice generated a six-figure sum, which tripled in the second year and doubled in the third. In the meantime, the Munich-based company has carried out 80 to 100 patient sessions per week. In addition, there are training sessions, workshops, and company events several times a month.
However, even if brainboost reinvests its profits directly, the two founders don't really have their sights set on venture capital; they seem to be more interested in preserving their freedom and continuing to push their own entrepreneurial limits, perhaps in VR application development or extended their business to corporate customers.
"I'm more of a social entrepreneur," Heiler explained. "I'm not interested in earning as much money as possible as quickly as possible. My main goal is to advance neurofeedback and the associated technology. The potential is just enormous."