Why "Brain Gyms" May Be The Next Big Business

Four years ago, investors gingerly handed over seed money to Lumosity, a startup creating brain games. Today they're happily tossing the same company $32 million. What changed?

concentration

Back in 2007, Lumosity was a scrappy startup scrounging for seed money. Today, the San Francisco-based company that creates games to make your brain work better is announcing it’s landed over $32 million in new funding.

What a difference four years make.

"When we first invested, we were concerned this was just a niche area for people with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive problems," Tim Chang of Norwest Venture Partners tells Fast Company. "But Lumosity has proved there’s universal demand for this among all demographics."

Indeed, today, over 14 million people in 180 countries either subscribe to Lumosity’s website or have downloaded one of its iPhone apps. And revenues have grown 25% every quarter since its launch.

Other companies, like CogniFit and Posit Science, also compete in this space, though none has received as large a round of funding as Lumosity. Sharp Brains, a market research firm tracking the brain fitness space, estimates that the size of the market for digital products was just under $300 million in 2009 and will grow to at least $2 billion by 2015.

Lumosity’s website offers 40 games designed to sharpen a wide range of cognitive skills. The signup process walks you through a series of questions to figure out whether you want, for example, to improve your ability to remember names, get better at problem solving, or develop better concentration at work or while driving. It then designs a series of "courses" tailored to your particular interests.

word bubbles

In one game, players are given a three-letter prefix and must come up with as many words as possible while a clock counts down. In another, arithmetic problems appear in bubbles, and the player has to solve them before the bubble bursts. A third, which is reminiscent of the IQ tests you took as a kid, challenges you to remember the locations of various tiles in a grid.

But all of this comes at a price. Website subscriptions cost $14.95 a month, or $80 a year. And yet, plenty of people are paying.

Lumosity CEO Kunal Sarkar tells Fast Company that’s in part because brain fitness is the latest wave in the trend of healthy living that started three decades ago when suburbanites started flocking to gyms and continues today with the widespread interest in yoga and organic foods. Many people pony up the annual subscription, equating it with a gym membership, but for their brains.

Meanwhile, the neuroscience research coming out of universities over the past couple of decades has confirmed that cognitive abilities are not necessarily fixed. Just as you can beef up your body by lifting weights, the types of games that Lumosity and its competitors offer can make your brain stronger and work faster and better.

"There’s a growing understanding that you can affect core cognitive functioning throughout your life," says Sarkar, whose cofounder Michael Scanlon was a neuroscience graduate student at Stanford before he—in good Silicon Valley form—dropped out to help start the company.

The fact that more and more of us work in fields that rely on how well that piece of jelly between our ears functions is also part of what’s driving the interest in brain fitness. Lumosity users include everyone from traders in Chicago who use the tools to warm up their noggins before heading to the trading floor, to actors in Los Angeles wanting to get better at memorizing scripts, to pilots using them to improve their spatial abilities and reaction times.

"We don’t necessarily teach you anything," Sarkar says, "but we make it easier for you to learn new things, which is more and more important."

[Image: Flickr user Arend Vermazeren]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

 

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11 Comments

  • Wopbopadoobop

    The concise discipline our evolution requires for worthy self-congratulations in sloughing off religions and other brain draining behavior modification camps sCientolology eg

  • Jake Moure

    I'm curious about the the long term effects and whether or not there would be any benefit for those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. Here is another article on dementia and brain games that I found interesting brain games 

  • Telkin

    I took some of the brain training tests. Its fun and definitely useful. The effects can be supported by using subliminal mp3s, which helps to motivate innerly to use the wast capacity of the Brain. You can check it at 
    http://degisimehazirim.com/

  • Teresa Kavanagh

    Interested in what you had to say Tanya ,I would like to get involved in the Brain Training Programme ,what kind of programmes are out there ?would love to know more ,as my friends and I would be very interested ,I do believe it is absolutely essential to exercise our brains if we are to enjoy our later years,  
    I am on Linkedin or you can e-mail me teresa Thank You ,
    Best Regards,
    Teresa Kavanagh.

  • vtiger

    It's pretty interesting that with 14million users they still need money.  How many more customers will it take to break even.  Here is another cool start-up http://mathIQgames.com - they are totally bootstrapping it; while teaching valuable math skill in the process.  Most games are free after registration...

  • Tanya Mitchell

    I do believe that we will see a huge focus on improving our brains. Our company does personal one on one brain training (LearningRx) . Our programs have helped people leave special ed, regain memory after brain injury, and just allow people to do what they want to do, not be hindered by a weak cognitive skill. This is going to be a huge industry but just like the physical fitness industry some programs will work better than others and there are different levels of help. Consumers should look for programs that offer measurable results.  

  • Chris

    While it's true that these sites can temporarily boost brain activity, true long-term improvements in cognition, memory, processing, and focus can be triggered through exercise. In the best-case scenario, these sites would be a part of a daily program that includes 5-7 minutes of exercise geared toward a specific area of improvement (eye tracking, memory, writing, math,) the proper environment for learning, and personal coaching. We've been involved in research on training the brain for a few years, working with local school Boards, children with autism and ADHD, victims of head injury and stroke, and even patients in a coma. We're funded by insurance companies and privately. http://www.ignitegym.com

  • Tony L

    I lost an aunt to Alzheimers and my mother had dementia when she died, so I am very concerned about my cognitive functions. My understanding about this area is that these games indeed can benefit players by changes in the brain's plasticity. However, only exercise, will actually send more oxygen to the brain and prevent shrinkage. Read: http://guysandgoodhealth.wordp...

    Tony L

  • Eugene Cantera

    This looks like another opportunity for educators to become entrepreneurs. Yet, I sense a bit of unrest among my colleagues when I suggest moving in this direction. How could a future full of sit-ins and 'save our schools' rallies seem more appealing than the possibility of using the gifts that teachers have in a productive,  state of the art, and technologically advanced manner to reach more people and to advance the entire profession as a whole?  Doesn't compute. Kudos to those entrepreneurs and educators who see the benefit of venturing out in this direction. I am happy to have like minded colleagues in my little niche of this world: http://bit.ly/9N7Fr7

  • Matt Mirandi

    intrigued by the potential here, but a little discouraged by the high subscription cost. 

  • Bette Boomer

    Boils down to the simple "use it or lose it" & use it to gain more. We talk a ton about brain games for maintaining vitality (www.betteboomer.com) & we'd love to hear what you think about this important facet of aging well.