Ottawa startup using AI to open the 'black box' on concussions

Neurovine is using AI to crack the code on concussion recovery, with backing from OSEG’s Jeff Hunt

“I think probably the start of all this was the fact that I grew up with a father who played professional football,” recalls Ashleigh Kennedy.

Her father, Ted Purnell, played on the Ottawa Rough Riders’ practice squad back in the 1960s. Though he had retired from pro football before Kennedy was born, growing up, her house was filled with his former teammates and old friends from the gridiron.

As years passed, Kennedy started to notice her father’s friends declining rapidly. At first, she assumed this was the normal course of aging, but she learned very quickly how unnatural their degeneration was.

“When I was very young, one of his friends committed suicide,” says Kennedy. “And it was related to CTE.”

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, is dominating headlines in professional sports today. Claims in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL for the league’s role in failing to protect players’ health have surpassed $500 million in recent years, and many professional athletes across the sporting world have announced their intentions to donate their brains to research after their deaths in an effort to uncover the mysteries of CTE.

“I have seen the impact of concussions firsthand,” says Kennedy, who’s now the co-founder of a company called Neurovine. “That shaped my path to study it and to learn more about the brain.”

Concussion concerns

Kennedy studied at Stanford University south of the border before doing a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Ottawa, followed up with a second doctorate in exercise physiology in France. A post-doc at the Toronto Rehab Institute then gave her a first-class education in taking research out of the lab and building a product for use in the home.

All the while, her husband and co-founder, Dr. Matthew Kennedy, was running into recurring concerns in his family practice in Ottawa. Patients exhibiting symptoms of a concussion were flooding into his office, but he lacked the ability to effectively quantify the disease and prescribe an effective recovery regimen.

That’s the problem with concussions. Symptoms and effective recovery methods often vary wildly from person to person, says Ashleigh Kennedy. EEG tests and careful monitoring from specialists can provide a limited window into a patient’s needs, but for an amateur athlete or everyday patient, the ideal treatments are educated guesses at best.

Even worse, if an athlete suffers a concussion in the middle of a game, they might not know it and could head back out on the field.

Kennedy calls concussions a medical “black box.” Her startup, Neurovine, is setting out to open that box.

The company, which is conducting clinical trials at the Bruyere Institute in Ottawa, seeks to combine wearable technology and machine learning algorithms to track patients’ concussion recovery and progress. The goal is to build a personalized solution that can tell a user when they’re pushing their physical or mental exertion too far and offer a tailored recovery road map that brings a patient back to full health in a faster, safer manner.

Pro sport support

Kennedy’s early efforts in concussion research led her to a CFL alumni meeting this past year. There, surrounded by retired football players, she heard a familiar story.

“They talked a lot about people not being able to come to these meetings anymore because they had just declined too much. And they’re young, they’re like 60,” she says.

That meeting is also where she met Jeff Hunt, one of the partners of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group. OSEG runs the CFL’s Redblacks and the Ottawa Fury soccer club as well as the OHL’s 67’s, the team Hunt himself has owned since 1998.

After being in professional sports for the past two decades, Hunt has been steeped in rising discussions around CTE. He tells Techopia he hadn’t been convinced by tech-oriented solutions to the problem until he met Kennedy and learned about Neurovine. 

Now, the prominent local sports exec is the lead investor in the burgeoning startup’s $322,000 seed round.

Hunt says the CTE issue is paramount to any sports organization, as effective athlete recovery is at the heart of the business. He notes that it’s frustrating for athletes who want to get back on the field or the ice, but have no way to chart their progress. That often leads to players pushing themselves before they’re ready, setting their recovery back even further.

What gets Hunt excited about Neurovine, then, is the ability to finally quantify an athlete’s return from injury.

“It’s like taking your blood pressure – it is what it is. It’s not my opinion that you have high blood pressure – you have high blood pressure – and it’s exactly this,” he says.

Neurovine is currently seeking participants for its clinical testing and is starting team trials in November with U Sports’ Carleton Ravens, but Hunt would eventually like to see the startup’s solution piloted in each of OSEG’s leagues. 

Though Hunt’s most vested interest is in helping his athletes get back to performing at their best as soon as possible, he and Kennedy are both excited to see how Neurovine can help patients of all stripes.

“People tend to think about it at the professional level first. Naturally, that’s a very, very small percentage of concussions,” Hunt says.

“That’s what’s most exciting, is having a tool for kids and families or minor sports teams to be able to utilize the technology that was tested and proven at the professional level.”