Sergio Segovia, Apex-Brasil

Defying Disability: How Brazilian Innovation is Improving Treatment for ASD

By Sergio Segovia
Sergio Segovia, Apex-Brasil

Three startup companies have made strong strides in helping patients with autism spectrum disorder.

Make no bones about it—Brazil is a critical hub for healthcare innovation. In fact, Brazil is the largest healthcare market in Latin America, representing 39% of the total amount spent in this sector. Home to state-of-the-art training facilities, Brazil’s expertise in pharmaceutical innovation extends to biopharmaceuticals, monoclonal antibodies, and vaccines; in terms of medical device innovation, Brazil specializes in patient aids, prosthesis and orthosis, and diagnostic and imaging products. While solving physical illness and disability is top-of-mind for Brazil, there is another area that is also paramount: Neurodiversity and treatment for those with mental disabilities.

This past April marked the 49th Autism Awareness Month in the United States. Much has changed in this space over the last 49 years, and Brazilians have become even more hyper-focused on bringing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to light and developing solutions for the sensitive challenges associated with ASD. Brazil’s population is the fifth largest in the world, and the country is home to an estimate of 1.5 million people with ASD. In recent years, Brazil—especially the city of Sao Paulo, the biggest of the country’s many innovation hubs—has been taking major strides to better detect, understand and address the unique needs of those with ASD. While Brazilian inventors are participating in global panels and government policies to hone the country’s focus on innovation around the specific area of ASD, there are also three startups in particular that are changing the ASD treatment landscape: Tismoo, CanGame, and Key2Enable.

Autism, a neuropsychiatric syndrome characterized by hindered communication, social interaction, and cognitive development, affects 1 in every 160 children, according to the World Health Organization. The question of genetic origin of ASD is one that has been raised many times in the study of neurological disorders, and it was Brazilian neuroscientist Alysson Muotri, Ph.D. a professor at the University of California San Diego, who founded the first laboratory in the world dedicated to this hyper-focused area of healthcare. This lab would become Tismoo, a biotechnology startup company that analyzes the genetic focus of neurological disorders.

In 2010, Alysson Muotri created an Autistic neuron in his laboratory— a massive landmark in this space. By 2015, Muotri had developed a technique using tiny, three-dimensional models to simulate the development of the human brain. By applying a specific stem cell strategy, this unique approach allowed Muotri to study potential causes and cures for Autism. Today, Tismoo uses genetic tests as a diagnostic tool, applying groundbreaking studies and techniques to perform complete genome analyses. Tismoo is the only company that offers technology to identify genetic alterations specifically linked with ASD, as well as other neurological disorders of genetic origin that are present in ASD behavior.

What is even more significant is that Tismoo’s approach to research, development and care in the ASD space is continuous. The company’s ultimate goal is to reduce healthcare costs, all while creating better patient outcomes for people with Autism. As such, they are always updating their services with new research and tests to stay up-to-date and allow for the most relevant information to be shared with doctors, patients and their loved ones. As Tismoo demonstrates every day, with an improved understanding of specific neurological disorders, healthcare can become more preventative, with more efficient collaboration between parents, specialized physicians, therapists and scientists.

The innovation coming out of Brazil does not stop there—new solutions are constantly being developed in the country for better patient outcomes. Whereas Alysson Muotri’s company is improving the diagnostic process with genetic mapping, Eralso Guerra, CEO and founder of startup CanGame, is harnessing the spirit of entrepreneurial education for ASD. CanGame has developed an app to promote the social inclusion of people who have already been diagnosed with Autism, all while monitoring their cognitive development. Created by young people motivated to apply their knowledge of Autism in a way that could improve upon the reality of a patient with ASD, CanGame has already garnered worldwide recognition, even securing 3rd place in the Pfizer Challenge.

The CanGame system promotes a heightened social autonomy for people with Autism via several sectors. CanGame Maker is a personalized learning tool that uses Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to target specific learning and follow-up treatment to help users manage their learning disabilities and take control of their healthcare. The app also allows doctors and caregivers to follow the user’s learning process in a cohesive way, offering key insights into their cognitive growth and providing what is needed for personalized patient treatment.

Further, designed using Microsoft Kinect, the games offered by the CanGame Learntool— including association games, sequence games, cinema and karaoke—each stimulate cognitive development, speech, and communication, as well as visual and auditory perception. The creative element of the tool makes practicing motor skills more fun for users, all while the tool generates automatic reports that monitor an individual’s evolution in their execution of each activity, building on the insights garnered from the previously mentioned Maker tool.

Lastly, the Healthtool from CanGame assists in the identification of the best professionals, institutions and educators for each individual to ensure that the best support system is in place for every given user. CanGame is geared towards not only health, but also happiness. The games and tasks involved in CanGame’s platform not only combat developmental regression and promote cognitive advancement, but they are also fun and allow users to play and enjoy themselves.

Much like CanGame and Tismoo, Brazilian startup Key2Enable is geared toward digital accessibility, empowering those with disabilities to further develop their skills and hone their unique strengths. Based on creative projects that began in Brazil in 2015, Key2Enable is driven by the goal of harnessing exponential technologies to broaden the horizons of people with intellectual and/or motor disabilities worldwide.

Equipped with a suite of disruptive solutions and applications, Key2Enable began its operations in the United States with the successful launch of the Key-X Multi-Purpose Smart Keyboard, an inventive device that gives autonomy to people with nearly any motor limitation so that they can control their own computer. The product includes 11 touch-sensitive keys, which can be triggered by something as small as a blink. The Key-X Keyboard is not just a computer mouse—it’s a tool for inclusion for education and rehabilitation.

Since the launch of the Key-X Keyboard, Key2Enable has created several other tools to help physically and intellectually disabled individuals communicate, such as the Simplix board (an audiovisual activity board), the TelepatiX (an app that speaks for the individual when prompted by sensors), and the a-blinX (a sensor that uses coordinated eye blinks to control the Key-X and/or TelepatiX). In 2018, the startup became a portfolio company of Singularity University, the world’s leading school of entrepreneurship. With this special recognition, Key2Enable is expected to impact 1 billion people in the next decade, bringing alternative methods of communication to a myriad of patients.

Brazil is the 8th largest healthcare market in the world, with a per capita average spending of 75% higher than the 20 largest emerging economies on health alone. Yet, beyond the size of the market, Brazil is also a top innovator and is offering solutions that will benefit people worldwide. It is Brazilian startups like Tismoo, CanGame, and Key2Enable that are extending treatment in ASD specifically beyond Latin America, improving the quality of life for ASD patients everywhere. What’s more, Brazilians are known for their creativity and determination, and nowhere are these qualities more essential than in the world of healthcare, beyond just ASD.

Brazilian companies are branching out from the hotbed of Sao Paulo, bringing their solutions to the global market and presenting their services at conventions like South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. The future is bright for the healthcare industry in Brazil—but more importantly, care for patients everywhere. It is my hope that, by the 50th annual Autism Awareness Month in 2020, innovation coming out of Brazil will have continued to evolve and improve at this unprecedented rate.

About The Author

Sergio Segovia, Apex-Brasil