Eric Dolan, co-founder of software company Neutun Labs, is clear about the importance of the disease that led him to become an entrepreneur. "Epilepsy is a highly stigmatizing and traumatizing condition," he says. No surprise, then, that he doesn't want to elaborate when he says epilepsy is "in his family."
There's no doubt, though, that an intimacy with epilepsy is the motivating force behind Neutun Labs, which Dolan, a software developer, and his brother Alex, who had just finished a degree in health care informatics, co-founded in 2014. Neutun is a software company that uses already available digital wearables--such as a Pebble or Apple watch--to help track epileptic seizures. When the person wearing the watch starts to move in a way that indicates a seizure, Neutun tracks the activity and can be set to automatically email or text a family member or caregiver.
Neutun is not the first to attempt this. But its approach--of using already available hardware to create a discrete monitoring system--is relatively new. A study group at Johns Hopkins is working with the Apple watch healthkit to track seizures using wearables; another company, Brain Sentinel, is working along the same lines.
Dolan says a lot of the existing tools are expensive or outdated. One even branded itself "the epilepsy watch," says Dolan. "From a marketing perspective, from a branding perspective, that's the right way to go," he says. "But this user population will never wear something that shouts to the world, 'I have epilepsy.'"
John Pollard, an associate professor of clinical neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, is investigating setting up a clinical trial with Neutun's software. "What oftentimes seems to set people apart is their dedication," he says. "I wouldn't risk any patient in a clinical trial if I thought the company wouldn't be around down the road or wouldn't have a product to offer."
Eric and his brother Alex introduced the initial prototype for Neutun at a 2014 hackathon in Waterloo, Ontario, called Hack the North. In 36 hours, they built an app for the Pebble smart watch, called Pebblepsy, that won in the wearable category. Eric built a quick sign-up page and posted it on Reddit, only to find, he says, that thousands of people around the world were sharing it and signing up to be updated on more developments. That was followed by a stint at Philadelphia's DreamIt Health and inclusion in the 2016 class of 500 Startups. Neutun has raised about $300,000 so far, and, fresh off their demo day at 500 Startups, is looking to raise a seed round of $750,000 to $1 million.
The current version of Neutun's epilepsy app has been downloaded about 5,000 times since it became available in March. It tracks seizures for free, and, for $10 a month, it can also alert caregivers that a seizure is taking place.
The seizure tracking is useful because epileptics will often black out or forget that they have had a seizure. They may also have a seizure while sleeping. "How do I know, as a clinician, if I should escalate someone's seizure therapy if they don't know if they've had a seizure or not," asks Pollard. "Especially if I say, 'Have you had any seizures? And they say, 'How should I know?'"
The alerts have obvious importance: The caregiver can text or email the person who may be having a seizure and, if there is no response, make sure someone investigates to see that the person with epilepsy is safe.
Notably, the current version of Neutun does not automatically call an ambulance when a seizure is detected. "We're from Canada," explains Eric, who moved the company to Pennsylvania to participate in DreamIt's health incubator. "At first we would program our notification system to call an ambulance or message a doctor. Then we found out an ambulance costs like $1,000 in the U.S., so users didn't want an ambulance every time." Now, it's up to the person using Neutun to decide who gets notified.
Neutun aims to be the standard tracking and notification technology for a variety of seizures, whether they're caused by epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, or another condition. Neutun is also trying to collect enough information to predict when a seizure might occur. That means aggregating data about stress, sleep, emotional sentiment, diet, medications, and a host of other factors. But Eric is clearly excited about the potential for the end result: An alert that would read, "Hey John, you might have a seizure within this time frame. Please get somewhere safe."