Your brain controls your body—with this basic concept, a Bangalore-based startup called Xeuron.ai is developing active intelligent footwear and virtual reality cognitive games as a solution for urban burnout and disease management. In a conversation with EFY’s Vaishali Yadav, the co-founder and CEO, Mr Siddharth Nair discussed the startup journey—both ahead and so far.
Q. What does Xeuron.ai intend to do?
A. We are building a platform which deciphers your brain, focusing on your cognition, which would help not only with burnout but your overall well-being. The brain controls your body directly or indirectly through your nervous system. So, when this process in your brain to control the body doesn’t work properly, it starts affecting your overall system. And that’s what we are trying to solve.
Q. What solution do you offer to this problem?
A. For corporates, we are deciphering the brain using semi-VR cognitive games for improved employee performance and productivity. Since most corporate employees are burned out due to professional and personal stress, the idea was to make them play some Semi-VR/AR games without you spending much time on a headset, etc. and track their cognition, mental processes and body movements at the same time.
For individuals, our offering is more towards disease management and longevity. The whole idea is to keep your brain young, such that the brain controls all the processes well and you still live a high-quality life.
Q. But how did you come up with this idea?
A. Actually, the inspiration for this idea was my mom. She got diabetes when she was in her mid-30s. And by the time she reached her early 40s, that affected her retina, nerves, and slowly each part of her body. That was the genesis of my first startup ‘Fyrsta Innovations’, where we were building a non-invasive neural modulation system. Luckily, it worked for her as she was able to walk again.
But, because diabetes is a systemic disease which affects each part of your body, it started getting back to her by affecting her kidney, heart etc. And when I went to the root cause, I found that these things are significantly related to the brain functions apart from the endocrine and other systems and not really the affected organs. That’s how the whole idea had to be redesigned and we came to a solution to help improve people’s quality of life.
Q. Please tell us a brief history of your company so far.
A. We are a Bangalore-based company. Legally, we started in May 2019. But technically, work started only during the pandemic, that is, around July 2020 when we received Nidhi Prayas Grant through DERBI Foundation. The initial idea was to just develop smart footwear and an insole consisting of embedded sensors. But then, with all the emerging technology and the need for adaptability to the user, it all came to a point of business sustainability. Hence, we migrated to a semi-immersive virtual reality (semi-VR) to start with, and the smart footwear that we are developing would help build the whole ecosystem.
“We thought why don’t we build AI around computer vision and start working with that? As the semiconductor industry gets in a better place, we’d go on to introduce smart footwear as well.”
Q. Could you please elaborate on how was the first prototype or MVP made and what kind of technology did you use?
A. It’s been a long journey. In 2020, the startup began developing a prototype around smart footwear that would sense motion, pressure, and temperature and if you provide a stimulus, it would even look into the neuromuscular response of the person.
We got a couple of grants from DST-NIDHI’s PRomoting and Accelerating Young and ASpiring technology entrepreneurs (PRAYAS), IISc MSME COE DESIGN Clinic SCHEME Grant and some prize money here and there that helped us to build our startup. But then, by the time we reached a firm base, it was COVID, and the semiconductor industry was one of the worst-hit industries. Most of our semiconductors companies were retrograded by more than two years. The war and geopolitical uncertainty were also not helping. Thereby, when we reached that state, we knew that though our plan looks good, it is not viable in this scenario. So, we had to pivot.
To do what we want to do, we need the brain, body and blood data. And if our insoles are not ready, how do we take that? While brainstorming further, we thought why don’t we start with computer vision? Let’s build AI around computer vision and start working with that. And as the semiconductor industry gets in a better place, we’d go on to introduce smart footwear as well.
That’s how we went in, and in fact, I’m glad that we did that because, if you see, the scalability of a business is much faster when there’s less hardware to start with. And of course, we can keep adding hardware later. So, we took that approach and hence we reached our MVP after a couple of pivots.
Q. Please elaborate upon the whole process of this brain deciphering mechanism.
A. Users immerse themselves in the game, but instead of using the joystick, they jump, lift and do activities, and the character in the video game mimics you. If you see the other side of it, you’d be physically active while playing a fun game. So, our idea was to make people become active, keep their minds fresh and trigger the cognitive centres of the brain.
Now, if you wear smart footwear while playing that game, it’d capture all the body parameters while you move, and it’d be able to predict your knee pain, ankle pain, and injuries, and it’d also look at your overall metabolism.
So, that’s the whole point: while the user is immersed in the game, we’re able to track their body, mind and entire bodily system. It’d help in preventing disease, and if they already have any disease/s we’d able to monitor the progress, if they’re undergoing treatment, we can look into its efficacy. And in future, we’re hoping that we can also predict diseases.
Q. Sounds interesting. Have you commercialized any of your products yet?
A. Initially focusing on wellness, we are launching our digital therapeutics solution called ‘ReLive’ this month. We have opened up the web app so that the game can be easily played on the big screen.
We have also launched a private beta on disease management, especially for diabetes in January and are inviting people to join the paid private beta. We are trying to demonstrate how it is helping them not only with respect to the disease but with respect to their productivity. The whole idea is to focus on the brain and help people get the best out of it while looking into the body and the blood.
Q. How do you consider your company, idea, or product unique?
A. Our biggest USP is deciphering the brain and cognition. No one is really looking into that right now. There are many players in diabetic and mental health disease management, like CogniFit, Lumosity, etc. There is a decent extent of cognition, but there is no physical involvement. Even if they know about the working of the brain, they don’t know how the body is responding to the brain. That’s where we make a difference as we are able to track the brain function with how your body is responding to your brain signals and the best part is that we’re doing it without using any external headset or devices.
We just need a webcam and we’ll be doing all the number-crunching behind. We look at about 72 parameters right now. But we don’t show all of them together, just the six at a time, and the focus is on getting those six parameters right.
So, on one side, it is monitoring your cognition. On the other side, it is giving you digital therapy to get your brain to the best of its cognitive ability.
Q. What is so smart about those insoles and footwear?
A. We call it smart because of two reasons. One, we give our users custom insoles. Two, we give our users access to the ReLive platform, whose tagline is: “Be the CEO of your health”, as it gives you access to Semi-VR games and other tools to help you to revive your brain and body from day-to-day stress. The algorithms track the overall body movement analysis etc.
Thereby, the user will be ahead of curve. That’s how we are trying to bridge the whole system. We have additional approaches like Genetics, and blood biomarkers in the pipeline to complete the development of a Robust system. We have come up with custom footwear, or custom insoles, which are 3D printed, and in future, we’ll have a smart layer added to it. We’ve started to sell even our smart insoles.
Q. Currently, what kind of research are you involved in?
A. We are busy with AI, intelligence system building, smart footwear manufacturing, and 3D printing of custom footwear. All of it is happening in India.
Q. How much does it cost to use the Xeuron.ai platform?
A. Just for accessing ReLive as a platform and not managed therapeutics, currently it costs Rs 999 per year per user. If they want to add family members, they can do so by just paying Rs 99 per family member, but then everyone in that family can see each others’ data in that cohort.
For AI-managed digital therapeutics which help them with various disease conditions and related support etc., the cost is Rs 999 per month with a minimum six-month package.
“We brought the concept of the Brain Age. While you play this game, we could actually measure your Brain Age. And the target for 30-year-old is to try to bring their Brain Age to 20 so that they are younger.”
Q. Tell me about your team. Who were there initially and how did the team grow?
A. Initially, I started the company with this thought process. Of course, the solution was not as comprehensive as it is now, but I started putting the team together, getting the co-founders, core team members, interns etc. on board. Our core team consists of six pillars. Five of us are from IISc Bangalore and one is from NID Ahmedabad.
My background is in bioengineering and medical device innovations, and I’m looking into product success and bringing design technology and business together. My co-founder Suramya is a biotechnologist and she has recently submitted a thesis on ageing and neurodegeneration. My core team member Palash has a background in electronics and communication and is currently working around soft matters, quantum physics etc. Jyoti Prakash has a background in physics and working in nanosciences. Parul has a background in biology, proteins and genomics.
We have been ably and critically supported by our lead designer Meenu M Pillai, who is a graduate of NID Ahmedabad and helps us with XR, UX, and all the techniques. Prathamesh (Our Allrounder), Ajas (Mechanical), Aishwarya and Aryan (Software) help us to build fast and test the solutions faster, while a few other key members who were part of this team like Ajay, Raunak Khaitan, Amulya, Amith, Rishabh and many more have contributed towards the building of xeuron.ai and have helped us reach where we are today.
Q. Should freshers look at Xeuron.ai for work opportunities?
A. Oh yes, we have been hiring a lot of freshers and interns, more than experienced people. Mainly because currently, we cannot match the cost they’ll get at any well-established company. But we do have a couple of good folks working with us because they like our vision. Right now, it’s 11 of us in the team and we follow a hybrid policy.
So, most of the people here are interns or freshers. But again, our hiring policies are a little strong and they have to undergo at least five to seven rounds of interviews before they get hired. So, either the candidate gives up or we give up! We made some mistakes in hiring interns earlier so we have learned a lot from it, and have put up stringent measures. We have not hired many interns in recent days, though, but we need to keep that filter otherwise it’s very difficult to build what we want to.
Q. Would you like to elaborate upon the issues with respect to internships?
A. In India, currently, students want to be just an intern for a month, but, to be frank, we can’t do anything in a month. They are not even useful to us. So, our minimum internship requirement is six months. The roles are open in full stack development, AI/ML embedded systems, intelligent systems, hardware designs, mechanical engineering, bioinformatics, and biotechnology.
Q. What have been the investment trends in your company?
A. We’ve got grants of up to Rs 20 lakhs and cash prizes of around Rs 10 lakhs. We raised Pre-Seed equity funding around a year ago from Campus fund, Raghunandan G (founder of Taxi4sure & Zolve) and Derbi Foundation. Currently, we are raising our Friends and Family round and we are planning to raise a seed round in Q3 of 2023.
Q. Being in this industry, are you looking for partners to collaborate with? What kind of firms should approach you?
A. We have initiated talks with a couple of banks and insurance TPA players, but these collaborative talks take a long time to materialize. Secondly, we have started to approach corporate and midsize organizations with 100+ employees for our employee well-being solution.
Our solution could become a plugin for probable collaborators like Sugarfit or Fitterfly, and they could improve their services for the patients.
“You need to ask yourself if you have the bandwidth to hold on to the various pressures of starting up.”
Q. Being an entrepreneur in such a tough phase of the pandemic, what have been the challenges that you faced? Any lesson for the upcoming generation of innovators?
A. For every startup or every individual, the journey will be unique, so, I cannot generalize that. But, I will just suggest not starting a company just because ‘startups’ are in the hype. Rather, you need to have a cause, it could be to earn a lot of money. That’s fine, but then you have to focus on that only and not let yourself get distracted. Be clear about why you have started.
Secondly, you need to ask yourself if you have the bandwidth to hold on to the various pressures of starting up. Because it’s not like ‘you’re your own boss’, rather everyone else is your boss other than you because you’re answerable to everyone, and not just your manager.
Third, keep planning even if it fails, because if you plan 1000 things, 999 things will fail, but that one thing will succeed. So, get a strategy and churn till you get things right.
Lastly, while starting up, it’s rightly said that there should be a need in the market. But, it’s also about the value that you bring in and the way you communicate it. You need to understand and target that right value correctly, and you’re set!
Q. What is the next big milestone that you’re heading towards?
A. We are aiming to bring this feature of a storage repository in our app, under which you can save all your medical records, vaccination records, etc in one place. That way, you can access them in the time of emergency or otherwise. You can also keep your parents’ health records saved in the app, and if you wish, we can manage, monitor and analyse those parameters.
In future, we will also bring in the feature of conducting tests around genetics, selling health-related products etc in the app.
Our plan is to firmly establish ourselves in India, get our AI models up, get all the validations in place, and push all the required plugs. After mid-2024, we’d like to go abroad and start with the US and the European market. Over there, we’ll be more disease-specific, because fortunately, they have a better work-life balance.
By the end of this calendar year, we would love to reach at least one lakh active users which would help us to change so many lives and at the same time, build what we want to build.
Kind Note: The public beta at the moment is invite-only: If you want to reserve your invite, kindly visit xeuron.ai or bit.ly/relivebeta or drop in a request to [email protected].