[Korean Startup Interview] Neurogrin: ‘Innovating Neurological Treatments to Restore Smiles with Advanced Tech’

  • funding Stage : Pre-Series A
  • Raising Amount : KRW 1 B
  • Desired Fundraising Timeframe : 3Q 2024

Neurogrin, a company established by physicians, traditional Korean medicine practitioners, and researchers well-versed in neuroscience from both medical and oriental medicine schools, combines ‘neuro’ (referring to nerves) and ‘grin’ (indicating laughter or a smile) in its name. This moniker embodies the company’s mission: to treat neurological disorders and restore smiles to patients’ faces. Given the diversity and treatment complexity of such conditions, Neurogrin is pioneering new technologies in both diagnosis and therapy.

In diagnostics, people frequently encounter pain in their daily lives, including spontaneous pain that occurs without any direct stimulus. Such pain is notoriously difficult to treat, and while painkillers developed through animal testing may seem promising, they often fail when applied to humans. This is because pain is a subjective experience that is hard to quantify, particularly in non-communicative animals, making it difficult to measure any improvement accurately. Therefore, drugs that are effective in animal models often fail in human clinical trials.

Neurogrin has focused on creating quantitative, precise assessments of pain indicators, which are traditionally evaluated qualitatively. They have developed a deep learning model called ‘Pain Streaming’ that precisely extracts and analyzes pain signals from the brain. In collaboration with the local company SOSO, they have also developed wearable brainwave diagnostic devices to use this technology in clinical settings.

These diagnostic advancements are essential for developing effective treatments for various neurological conditions, especially in neurorehabilitation. By accurately classifying neural signals during treatment, Neurogrin can identify which rehabilitation methods are most effective, potentially revolutionizing neurorehabilitation practices.

In terms of treatment, Neurogrin is breaking new ground by focusing on the vagus nerve, or the tenth cranial nerve, a crucial component of the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for many bodily functions, including gut motility, digestion, heart rate regulation, and calming excitement. Their research, published in the international journal ‘Cells’ in 2022, revealed that stimulating the vagus nerve enhances the activity of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which in turn improves the removal of brain waste through lymphatic circulation. From this research, Neurogrin developed ‘Cerogrin’, a non-invasive electronic device that stimulates the vagus nerve branches near the ears to boost CSF circulation.

The potential impact of Cerogrin is significant, particularly in the context of the global increase in the elderly population and the corresponding rise in cases of vascular dementia, which comprises 17-30% of all dementia cases and lacks effective treatments. Neurogrin is optimistic that Cerogrin could offer a breakthrough for treating vascular dementia.

Furthermore, Neurogrin is not limiting Cerogrin’s application to vascular dementia alone; they are also exploring its use in treating pain, depression, obesity, addiction, and other neurological conditions, with promising results from animal studies. Based on these outcomes, Neurogrin is preparing for clinical trials to have Cerogrin approved as a medical device.

In an interview with Wowtale, Neurogrin’s CEO, Jeong Ji-hoon, shared his own positive experience with Cerogrin, expressing high confidence in its potential. This confidence is supported by a team of dedicated neuroscientists from Kyung Hee University and Seoul National University, who have long focused on treating neurological disorders. Neurogrin aims to live up to its website slogan, ‘Refresh your brain, Regain your grin’, hoping to restore smiles through revolutionary treatments for brain and nerve disorders.

What problem is Neurogrin trying to solve?

Neurogrin aims to address the pervasive challenges posed by neurological disorders, which affect many individuals either personally or within their families. These disorders range from pain, depression, and anxiety to more severe conditions such as dementia and stroke. Societal issues also include substance and behavioral addictions like drug and dopamine addictions. Often, these conditions lack effective cures, have insufficient treatments, or come with severe side effects. Consequently, there is a pressing need for innovative medical approaches to these disorders, though bringing such innovations from the lab to the clinic is fraught with challenges.

Neurogrin is a company dedicated to overcoming intractable neurological diseases by applying the latest advancements in neuroscience research. We leverage academic expertise to develop cutting-edge medical technologies and navigate real-world challenges to ensure successful clinical implementation.

How does Neurogrin solve this problem?

Founded by medical professionals specializing in neuroscience, Neurogrin leverages years of basic research that has uncovered the pathological mechanisms behind neurological diseases. This research has led to the development of new medical technologies. Despite substantial investment and research efforts, many development attempts for new treatments fail due to the inadequacy of preclinical research models and evaluation methods in experimental settings. Neurogrin tackles these issues by developing both treatment and evaluation technologies, beginning with a preclinical evaluation platform that mirrors clinical scenarios. It enhances predictive capabilities through non-invasive neural stimulation techniques and machine learning algorithms for analyzing brain signals, transforming these into applicable products for treating neurological disorders.

What are Neurogrin’s competitive advantages and technological strengths compared to competitors?

Neurogrin’s team, armed with advanced knowledge in neuroscience and medicine, uniquely positions the company to tackle real-world problems effectively. Our proprietary brain signal evaluation techniques bridge the gap between clinical and preclinical settings, improving predictive accuracy. This approach is unrivaled and difficult for competitors to replicate, optimizing the development of treatments and minimizing clinical failures. Additionally, our technologies can expand within clinical medicine through integration with advanced technologies, such as real-time brain signal analysis and non-invasive neural stimulation, which together with exoskeleton technology, create cutting-edge rehabilitation technologies for stroke-induced paralysis.

What products/services does Neurogrin offer? What is the current status?

Neurogrin specializes in both treatment and diagnostic technologies. 

Our ‘Cerogrin’ device, based on our patented technology, is a standout in treatment technologies. It is a wearable neural stimulator that non-invasively stimulates the auricular branch of the vagus nerve to enhance cerebrospinal fluid circulation. This device can be conveniently worn on the ear and is adaptable for treating various neurological disorders based on the stimulation settings.

Notably, in cases of vascular dementia, which follows stroke-induced cognitive impairments, ‘Cerogrin’ has demonstrated significant cognitive improvements. These findings were published in a 2022 SCI-level journal, leading to the development of a version for human use. We are currently moving towards clinical trials with the goal of seeking FDA approval by 2025.

On the diagnostic front, we have developed ‘Telewavelet,’ a technology that transforms multi-channel signals in real time for machine learning analysis of brainwave patterns. This enables the comprehensive analysis of electroencephalogram (EEG) signals to monitor patient discomfort or intentions instantly. We are in the process of commercializing this technology by producing the necessary EEG hardware, ultimately facilitating rapid medical responses to various neurological conditions.

What is the size of Neurogrin’s target market and who are its core target customers?

Our primary focus is on vascular dementia, the second most prevalent type of dementia, for which there are currently no effective medications. In 2021, the market size for vascular dementia reached USD 2.23 billion and is projected to grow at a CAGR of about 4.05% from 2019 to 2032. The broader dementia market globally is valued at approximately KRW 3.6 trillion, with expectations to expand to around KRW 6 trillion by 2024 due to ongoing societal aging. Vascular dementia is estimated to represent 17-30% of dementia cases worldwide.

In South Korea, the dementia prevalence rate among those aged 65 and older was 10.3% in 2020, which equates to roughly 840,000 individuals. This statistic suggests that about one in ten elderly Koreans suffers from dementia, with vascular dementia constituting 17-30% of these cases. The elderly population represented 15.7% of the total population in 2020 and is expected to increase to 25.0% by 2030, indicating a likely rise in dementia cases correspondingly.

What is Neurogrin’s business model?

Our short-term business model involves commercializing our developed treatment devices and marketing them to medical and care facilities. Key B2B prospects include:

Firstly, medical institutions are significant because a substantial number of patients in nursing hospitals have dementia, with a consistent demand anticipated. These institutions, particularly those focused on elderly and rehabilitation care, are in need of effective dementia management tools. General hospitals also represent a potential market as they regularly treat dementia patients who require ongoing symptom management and medication.

Secondly, public health facilities are crucial customers. Healthcare personnel in these facilities are continually in need of effective tools for managing dementia symptoms as part of their community-based programs and home care services. Given that dementia is a progressively worsening condition, it poses significant management challenges for long-term care providers.

In the long term, we aim to have our products included in national health insurance schemes. Dementia, due to its progressively debilitating nature, necessitates continuous management, recognized as such by health insurance authorities. This recognition extends to home care nurses who provide specialized nursing services, enabling them to deliver comprehensive health management.

By analogy, consider diabetes management: in 2020, the Korean National Health Insurance Service expanded coverage for diabetes management devices, subsidizing significant portions of the costs for glucose monitors and insulin pumps.

Our ultimate goal is to establish Neurogrin’s devices as essential dementia management tools supported by national health insurance coverage.

What are Neurogrin’s achievements so far?

Prior to its establishment, Neurogrin was selected for the Global Startup Support Program for Promising Bio Technologies and the Preliminary Startup Package Program. After its foundation, it has been selected for the Innovative Startup Package (Super-gap Startup 1000+), Startup Growth Technology Development Project, and the Seoul Innovation Challenge, receiving high evaluations in each.

Additionally, a project planned in collaboration with researchers from GIST (Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology) and Seoul National University was selected for the National Science Challenge Project (STEAM Research Future Promising Convergence Technology Pioneer). This led to the launch of the “HYPE Perceptual Neuroscience Research Group” in 2023, a joint effort by GIST, Seoul National University, and Neurogrin.

In 2024, Neurogrin was named the winner of the Bio Acceleration Program hosted by the global pharmaceutical company Takeda and the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI).

We have also signed MOUs for joint research collaborations with the Chronic Pain Research Group, a consortium of four major science and technology institutes, Neurobots (a Brazilian rehabilitation robot developer), and SOSO (a domestic wearable device developer).

We have published numerous research findings in SCI-level international journals and secured intellectual property rights. Regarding patents, we have filed for more than seven related to technology development, with two currently registered, and have also filed four design patents for devices intended for human use.

What are Neurogrin’s competitive strengths?

Neurogrin was founded by neuroscientists and medical professionals who have spent years specializing in neuroscience. Our executives, who have conducted cutting-edge research at Kyung Hee University College of Oriental Medicine and Seoul National University College of Medicine, lead a team composed of the country’s top R&D talents.

These founders from Kyung Hee University College of Oriental Medicine and Seoul National University College of Medicine united to apply their research outcomes to real-world medical problems. Our practical research team includes four doctoral and two master’s degree holders from these institutions, all top-tier professionals with specialized expertise and problem-solving capabilities.

Furthermore, our research and development network includes partnerships with Seoul National University, Kyung Hee University, the Alliance of Science and Technology Institutes, the Korea Brain Research Institute, the National Primate Research Center, and more. We also have networks of clinical medical staff (at institutions such as Seoul National University Hospital, Kyung Hee University Hospital, Hallym University Hospital) and business networks (Seoul Bio Hub, industry-academic cooperation units of Seoul National University, Kyung Hee University, Sungkyunkwan University, and the Bio I-Core Project Team), all of which support our various business aspects.

Our researchers, who have long been involved in academia, aim to translate basic research into practical solutions for medical problems, leveraging their high-level technical skills, foundational technologies, domain knowledge in medicine and neuroscience, and their drive to solve problems.

How has the Seoul Bio Hub program assisted the company’s growth?

Seoul Bio Hub has provided us with an incubation environment and various resources helpful for commercialization, including lectures, networking opportunities, and practical materials. The program has also introduced us to external programs, facilitated connections with other special districts like the Hongneung Small Giant District, and provided support in creating promotional materials, consulting, and investment attraction mentoring.

Three reasons why we should receive investment:

First, we possess the original technology and the capability to solve real medical issues. Our technology, targeting vascular dementia—a condition without current effective treatment—will be the sole prescription available after passing clinical trials and obtaining medical device approval.

Second, our platform and treatment/diagnostic technologies have high scalability, applicable to a variety of diseases beyond dementia. After overcoming regulatory hurdles to receive medical device approval, we plan to apply these technologies to a range of diseases, potentially dominating the global medical market.

Third, we have a robust academic and hospital network essential for medical technology realization, and post-commercialization, we have established connections with distributors necessary for medical distribution.

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