Written by Andrew Seale
Dr. Sanjeev Sharma is no stranger to brain trauma. Not just from working clinically in the ER for nearly two decades, but also from competing in taekwondo at a sub-Olympic level.
“You took a lot of headshots… they were called bellringers, you just shake it off and move along,” says the co-founder of Highmark Interactive, creators of EQ, a mobile app for assessing brain function pre- and post-collision. But when his twelve-year-old daughter took a bellringer in martial arts, it changed his perspective on concussions and head trauma.
“She crumbled,” says Sharma. It was terrifying, and even after the initial fear, worries about the shock to the brain lingered. His mother and wife both wanted to know if she’d had a concussion.
“I said I don't know and they both looked at me and said ‘what do you mean you don't know? you're an ER physician, you're a doctor, this is your daughter, what do you mean?’ ” says Sharma. “I said ‘there are no diagnostic tests for concussions.’ ”
He couldn’t believe his own words; he couldn’t believe there were no tests to answer the question his mom and wife were both asking. Will Smith had just made a movie about concussions and Sidney Crosby’s struggles with the same thing were well documented. He’d seen it firsthand in the emergency department, the spectrum of variability surrounding diagnosing concussions and treating them.
It was a conversation society seemed to be ready to have.
“Here's this new medical condition that everyone knows about, there's a lot of fear and angst around it but the medical world didn't really know how to diagnose,” he says. “I looked at concussion as my generation’s challenge.”
So he did what any entrepreneur would do, he stepped up to try and find a solution using technology. Sharma had worked both in health policy and for the technology wings of major corporations like Microsoft and Baxter. He’d also built a successful startup, WellPoint Health Services in 2005, selling private healthcare alongside his co-founder and brother Sunil Sharma (who also co-founded Highmark Interactive).
He had a good idea of the challenges ahead.
“Concussions are like snowflakes, they're unique… even if I have three of them because the brain is effected each concussion can present differently,” explains Sharma. There are two ways to diagnose – the long game, which requires trying to find a brain-specific protein that crosses the blood-brain barrier, which Sharma says is “an 8 to 10-year process because you've got a tremendous amount of regulatory testing and hurdles to get through.”
The other option is a technology solution that allows an individual to generate their day-to-day equilibrium so when there’s a collision you can compare and see what the brain is doing post-trauma.
Unsurprisingly, the Sharma brothers decided to tackle option B. They bought a successful gaming studio and partnered with a team from the University of Waterloo, bringing in global thought leaders in sports medicine and neurology to create the right algorithm to code into the software. The aim was to gamify neurological assessments and paint a picture of the user’s equilibrium.
The software EQ spent 18 months to develop. Today it’s live in schools and sports leagues in 15 countries around the world.
“At the point of the collision, you can pull the child or adult off the field out of the car if it's a car accident and if you have a tablet or a smartphone right there you can do a check-in,” says Sharma.
Since building Highmark Interactive and releasing EQ, the company has drawn researchers and advisors from all over the world.
“Every one of them was ecstatic to work with a company out of Toronto, Canada,” says Sharma. “Which for me, was exciting, not just to be able to reach out and touch global thought leaders, but to do that with all of them knowing that this is being done out of Toronto which is my hometown.”
And how could they not be ecstatic? Highmark Interactive is at the precipice of head trauma discovery and diagnosis, the challenge of a generation according to Sharma. Who wouldn’t want to play a role in breathing insight into the unknown?
“It's amazing,” says Sharma. “It happened very quickly.”
Photo credit: Highmark Interactive