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On building the 23andMe for brains with BrainKey founder, Owen Phillips, Ph.D

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Author: Jessica Li

Owen Phillips, CEO and co-founder of BrainKey

I spoke with Owen Phillips, Ph.D, CEO and co-founder of BrainKey (Y Combinator W19), an AI neuroscience startup developing a platform to help patients manage their brain health so that they can identify problems early, track how their brain is changing over time and get access to the right and best care for their needs quickly and easily.

Owen shares more on BrainKey’s founding story and evolution, advice for healthcare founders, building successful partnerships, and brain health.

Super exciting news about the launch to increase the accessibility of BrainKey scans through imaging center partnerships! Could you share a bit more for reader context?

It is exciting! We have made it possible to get a high-resolution AI enhanced analysis of your brain health. This is new and important because up until now, brain healthcare has been reactive — meaning, you wouldn’t learn about your brain health until you had significant symptoms. The problem with this approach is that it is more difficult to treat a problem if it’s identified late. For example, if a malignant tumor was identified early or an aneurysm that looked like it was close to bursting was spotted — physicians could act to solve the problem. This also applies to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Although there is not currently a pill patients can take to solve Alzheimer’s disease, neurologists have discovered that by intervening early, patients can positively impact how their brain ages.

It’s no one’s fault that we have a medical system where we identify brain problems late. It evolved because we didn’t have the tools or resources for patients to get a “physical for your brain” so problems could be identified early — but by combining AI with advanced imaging we can now offer this.

As a patient, it’s easy to sign up for the “BrainKey Scan” on our website. Patients can go to our site, choose the MRI center location and time that works best for them and then they can go to the center to get the scan. The actual scan takes ~15 minutes and they will get your results online in a day. It costs $390 and the patient will get their high resolution scan, a medical report by a board certified radiologist, and an AI enhanced dashboard in which to view their brain in 3D.

How did you get the idea for BrainKey? What is BrainKey’s founding story?

My grandma died with dementia and a close friend had a brain tumor that was a nightmare for him and his family. Everyone I’ve talked to has a personal story that involves a serious brain health issue. Brain issues are common. 1 in 3 people will have a neurological issue at some point in their lifetime.

I’d been a researcher and I had published over 45 peer-reviewed manuscripts but I wanted to translate what I was doing into the real world where it could impact patient’s lives directly. But it’s hard to go from the lab into the real world. It was around 2015 AI/ML started to get “smarter” and I got really excited about the possibilities. My co-founder (Ben Kotopka, Ph.D.) and I were both at Stanford University and we both had a deep interest in AI. We ended up partnering up in a deep learning for genomics class and had a great time working together.

Ben’s a genius with a background in computation and biology and we worked well together so we wanted to figure out a way to keep collaborating. We ended up starting an independent project afterwards and we used that momentum to get into YCombinator Winter of 19. Ben was still finishing up his PhD at the time — so it was tough — going through YC while preparing a dissertation is not easy! But Ben managed it all and we’ve been going strong since then.

How has BrainKey evolved since founding?

We’re still evolving! When we first started, we built this great AI tool that allowed us to take in an MRI scan and produce high quality statistics about that scan in a few minutes. We saw it as a big improvement over existing tools on the market because it was so fast and accurate — but we didn’t know how to get it to market. We ended up building an infrastructure around the AI so that we could get it in front of people to show it off. Once we had that, we started testing it with physicians and then patients. What stood out to us when we did this is how strongly patients responded to it. Specifically, they like to be able to see their own brain in 3D — in a way that they could grasp and understand. When we talked with more patients, we kept hearing the same story — that they wanted to be more empowered about their own brain health. For example, patients with Multiple Sclerosis would have to get a brain scan every year — but they had never actually seen their own brain themselves. When we would show it to them, they would love it.

What we took out of all these conversations is that there is currently a gap in healthcare where patients are not engaged with their own healthcare the way they would like to be. Again, this isn’t anyone’s fault — physicians are great at their jobs but patient behavior seems to have changed from one where a patient would just listen to their physician and take their advice as law — to one where they play an active role in their own healthcare. The problem with the current system is that when patients don’t get the involvement and answers they want from physicians (who are already super overburdened and don’t have the time to spend hours with patients) — they end up on “Google Doctor” — which can lead them down a hole of bad information. We think that there can be a much better way — by leveraging AI — we can make complex medical data engaging and understandable to a patient.

So in summary — we started out with an algorithm and we discovered that we can use it to help patients be better engaged with their own brain health.

BrainKey’s history

What is your advice for other founders and healthcare innovators on building successful partnerships in the space?

I wish there was an easy way where an unknown innovative founder could walk up to a large healthcare company — have their ideas heard and taken seriously — but — that’s not the way it works. Healthcare is a community of very smart people, who have worked very hard to get where they are -and if they’re in a position to make decisions — they are likely world experts in their respective field — my point is — it’s not easy to get these people to take time away from their busy schedule to hear you out. The best way to get foot in the door is to either publish an amazing paper in a high impact journal so that they seek you out themselves — or establish relationships with advisors/investors who have been in the field a long time and who can help you get a foot in the door.

What is an often overlooked part of brain health?

Your brain is your most important asset. Everything about our interconnected world is demanding on your brain and if it’s hurting, you will have a hard time getting by.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 is demonstrating just how debilitating it can be to have neurological issues. For example, 40% of covid patients are reporting some neurological issues — these issues such as “brain fog” can last for months or even longer. This is brutal for the patients who can be knocked out of their work and responsibilities. Some neurologists have started prescribing “brain baseline” MRI scans for patients so that they can track their brain health going forward. We recently wrote about Covid-19 and the brain here:

I bring this up because there seems to be a shift in awareness about brain health from something that we ignore to something that we are actively working to maintain.

What are the most surprising lessons you have learned from leading a healthcare company through COVID?

Everyone already knows this now but — remote work can actually work. Everyone’s tired of video calls now but still it’s easier to get an executive on a video call than it is to convince them to meet up for lunch.

It has been such a pleasure interacting with each member of your team, and they have all spoken super highly of their experience at BrainKey. How do you intentionally create positive company cultures?

That’s great to hear! This keeps coming up so we must be doing something right!

Overarching Leadership:

Value everyone’s opinion and give everyone an opportunity to make an impact.

Opinions are powerful. You can leverage the power of opinion. Everyone’s got an opinion — so ask for them. If they voice an opinion with conviction — it’s an endorsement that they believe in it. People want to build what they believe in. So, give them the opportunity to lead that “opinion” into reality.

Obviously, you won’t go forward with every opinion — that’s your job as a leader to sift through the various inputs and to jump on the good stuff but you won’t get to all that great stuff unless you make the space for opinions to be voiced.

Two: We’ve found that talented people will quickly jump on an opportunity to voice their opinion and to see that opinion become a reality. If someone has no opinions — they probably don’t care enough to work on something hard enough to see it become reality and — they probably don’t belong in a startup environment.

What are you most excited about moving forward with BrainKey?

There is so much medical data that is being collected now on patients. Existing tools such as medical imaging, genomics, wearables, blood biomarkers… just keep getting better and cheaper — I think we’re at this point right now where we’ve built up this amazing data generation ecosystem. I think the biggest change for healthcare going forward is how to make sense of all this data — not just for the physicians — but for the patients as well. This is what I’m most excited about as we move forward — patient-facing healthcare. The question that drives us is — how can we take complex medical data and leverage the power of AI to make it understandable and actionable for a patient?

About the Author

Harvard Grad | Head of Content @ Elpha (YC S19) & Harvard in Tech | Marketing @ ZAGENO |


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