A video game to fight excess weight
Play a video game and start to lose weight without even realising it. This is Neuria’s offer, for which the company recently received the Canton of Fribourg’s Innovation Award in the start-up category. An interview with Lucas Spierer, one of the founders.
PHOTO: © STEMUTZ
Is it motivating to win a prize like this?
Yes, it boosts your confidence when you’re starting off as an entrepreneur. We have won three awards: the Future of Health Grant from EPFL/CSS health insurance, the Innovation Prize from the Canton of Fribourg, and the Rosenfield Prize from EPFL’s Accelerators’ Showcase. Competing against strong MedTech start-ups in this context brings us visibility and credibility. I feel like these competitions work as a filter for investors to identify where there is money to be made.
What is the origin of Neuria?
Neuria is the spin-off of my neuroscience laboratory at the University of Fribourg’s School of Medicine. Our research focused on brain plasticity to understand how we could improve the rehabilitation of brain injured patients and help healthy individuals develop expertise. We identified the most effective cognitive training approaches and the changes they induce in the brain.
For 10 to 15 years, we have been looking into self-control capabilities, because they are excellent predictors of academic and social success. We postulated that by improving self-control, we would be able to improve many aspects of life. We identified tasks that require this self-control network and proposed that people practise such tasks intensively to strengthen self-control, thereby improving their daily lives.
We concluded that this is not possible! People become very good at the tasks they train for, but you cannot generalise about the effect this expertise has on their lives. All research groups in this field have come to the same conclusion. In short, playing chess does not make you more intelligent, but it does teach you how to play chess better. The same goes for music. This is invariable: we improve at the tasks we train for, but there is very little transfer.
So you were still a long way from starting a business?
We discovered that our training programmes had an unexpected side effect: they led to a decrease in taste for the objects used in the proposed tasks. If I train you using images of food, after a while, you have less of an appetite for the dishes represented, you make less effort to get them. And that’s very interesting for modifying behaviour.
This discovery is the basis of Neuria. We have figured out how to modulate the responses of the brain’s reward system that determines our preferences. We also developed smartphone software for our research that has been professionally gamified. As we can apply this discovery to food, tobacco, alcohol, we thought it would be appropriate to market our approach.
Neuria is therefore founded around the discovery of a mechanism of action that allows us to modify our preferences. We have turned this into a video game that can be used with obesity, overweight, smoking, and other addictions. By playing 15 hours over a month, players’ preferences are permanently changed without them realising it.
How did you get in touch with bluefactory?
When we realised that we had an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) we wanted to create a company, both to contribute to public health and to get financing for our academic research.
But I had no idea about the world of entrepreneurship. I went to see Tech-Transfer Fribourg, who gave us a lot of help and referred us to Fri Up, who still actively support us. Our software developer Maurizio Rigamonti was already installed on the site with Sugarcube. He is now Neuria’s CTO. It is really important to benefit from this kind of support and be able to exchange ideas with people from other backgrounds on the bluefactory site.
What are the next steps for Neuria?
Our goal now is to raise financing. And as soon as that’s done, we’re going to hire someone to grow the business, because we still need new skills to take the next steps. We are working with video game artists, developers, and other scientists.