The Korea Herald


[Start-up Seoul] Medical tech start-up makes wearable to tackle dementia

Ybrain clinches funding from sports virtual reality tech company

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 26, 2015 - 20:46

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As Korea faces the growing challenge of caring for an aging society, one start-up hopes to help reduce the social costs by treating and diagnosing mental disorders without the use of drugs.

Ybrain, a Seoul-based medical technology start-up, aims to create wearable devices that help doctors and patients treat mental diseases in their early stages, and even prevent them. Its ultimate goal is a medical device tackling the most common form of dementia ― Alzheimer’s disease, which it views as the most challenging illness facing humans today. In 15-20 years, it hopes for a device that could be used for 30 minutes a day by healthy middle-aged users that would prevent Alzheimer’s disease in their 80s or 90s.

“Our perspective is to help people. We really want to help ourselves, our families and other severe patients. That’s our first goal,” said Lee Ki-won, CEO of Ybrain, in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Lee Ki-won, CEO of Ybrain, with the start-up’s flagship device Yband. (Ybrain) Lee Ki-won, CEO of Ybrain, with the start-up’s flagship device Yband. (Ybrain)

“More and more people will be getting Alzheimer’s, (which is) disconnecting families and ruining their lives. We think that what our company is doing is becoming more important, and we are sure we can help those people someday, maybe within a few years.”

Just two months after Ybrain’s founding in February 2013, a car accident left Lee’s father intellectually impaired with a severe brain injury, forcing him to leave his job. As the start-up grew, Ybrain found that new staffers had family members with Alzheimer’s disease or other intellectual impairments, and the team realized its vision for devices to help people.

Its flagship wearable, the Yband, uses electric pulses instead of chemicals to treat patients, diverging from the drug-based commercial treatments used today.

The Yband sends a weak electric signal to the brain, which increases the activity of the prefrontal cortex ― the front part of the brain that controls abstract thinking, thought analysis and behavior. Based on results of clinical trials so far, the start-up claims that cognitive performance improves 10-12 percent after just 20-30 minutes of use.

Brain analysis has come leaps and bounds from just a few decades ago, when it could only be done through surgery. The EU and U.S. are pouring heavy resources into brain research, much like they did for the Human Genome Project for DNA research in the 1990s. Now the implications are even greater, Lee said, as the new technologies will not just enhance research, but also have direct applications for doctors, patients and ordinary people.

Because making medical devices requires so much money and time, the start-up expanded to lifestyle applications, such as devices to measure or enhance one’s focus and cognition, to fund its medical research. That technology could have major applications for the education industry, as one study found that memory abilities and reaction times increased with the Yband.

Other possible applications could be in the sports industry, which Golfzon Yuwon Holdings Co, Ybrain’s newest investor, is betting on. The start-up clinched a strategic investment Monday of an undisclosed amount from the holding company of Golfzon Group, a Korean golf simulator manufacturer that hopes to develop its virtual reality technology.

In the long run, the start-up aims to develop a two-track portfolio of medical and lifestyle devices, but for now, its priority remains on tackling complex mental disorders.

Currently, it is working with 16 hospitals in Korea to conduct clinical trials with the Yband for treating depression, trauma, schizophrenia and mild cognitive impairment, or early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Its first step is depression treatment, with the aim to launch the Yband and a disease diagnosis device dubbed the “Jellyfish” by next year. It expects the final stage of clinical trials for depression to conclude early next year, which will be “pivotal” for gaining approval from the Korean Food and Drug Administration.

Despite two years without a product launch, Lee feels a growing sense of mission.

“We keep receiving letters from families (of) patients with mental disorders,” Lee said, showing an email he received earlier in the day from a man whose daughter has bipolar disorder. “So yeah, we need to hurry up.”

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By Elaine Ramirez (

Start-up Seoul is a series featuring players in Korea’s emerging tech start-up scene. This is the ninth installment. ― Ed.