Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Interview with Elizabeth Amini, Anti-Aging Games
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Earlier this week, Los Angeles-based Anti-AgingGames (www.Anti-AgingGames.com), a new online game startup, announced a new service to help users improve their memory and concentration, as well as improve brain function. The firm notably has Atari founder Nolan Bushnell as an advisor and serving as its chief game designer. We spoke with co-founder and CEO Elizabeth Amini, to hear more about what the firm is doing, how Bushnell got involved, as well as the firm's unique outlook and dedication to giving back through social entrepreneurship.
What does Anti-AgingGames do?
Elizabeth Amini: We make fun and easy online games designed to stimulate memory, concentration, focus, and relaxation. We're the only site that is specialized in people over the age of 35 in that area. The reason we're targeting that age group, is it's very hard to make a game fun for someone who is fifteen and has a very sharp mind, and also very hard for someone who is 80 and is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. So, we are specializing in cognitively healthy people, who are younger than who most of our competitors are targeting. There is lots of competition in this area for serving retirement homes. We felt we'd have more impact over time, if we instead focused on people who are one generation younger, still working, and are active.
How did you end up starting the site?
Elizabeth Amini: My background is actually in science. I studied cognitive science, the study of the brain, as an undergraduate. However, I graduated in a recession, and woke up to the brutal awakening that there were no jobs for scientists with just a Bachelor's degree. My other, non-marketable skill included philosophy. So I actually started a graphic design company out of college, and got lucky with the web taking off at the right time. This is my third company.
You also have a background as a scientist at JPL?
Elizabeth Amini: My first company was in graphic design, and provide both graphics for the entertainment industry, but also building websites for UCLA and all kinds of places around science, astrophysics, and those types of departments. Because they were science related, at some point I ended up talking with NASA JPL. They offered me a contract job at the intersection of science and graphics, which is satellite imaging, a dream come true. I ended up managing that project. That turned out great, and I ended up working on various science research projects for five years. I even built them a few websites too.
How did you connect with Nolan?
Elizabeth Amini: I actually ran into him in 2005, when he was a keynote speaker at a conference. At the time, I was running a performance-based consulting firm. I took me four attempts to run up to him, I was so nervous because he had been a childhood hero. I used to play videogames 25 hours a week. He liked my ideas and hired my company to be his strategy consulting company. Over time, we grew to be friends.
What's his role with the company?
Elizabeth Amini: He's our advisor, and also chief game visionary. I asked him if he wanted to be involved, and he asked me if I wanted his money, or his time. I told him, I wanted him to invest his time.
So Nolan is behind the design of the games?
Elizabeth Amini: He's the one who waves his hands, and tells the programmers the way they need to go. We've got an iterative design process, where he starts it, it goes to the scientists to put the science in, then it goes back to him to figure out how much less fun they've made it, then it goes back to Nolan for changes, and then back to the scientists to figure out how much less effective it has become. The iterative cycle continues until the game becomes both fun and effective.
Back to the website, describe who the demographics are of your customers?
Elizabeth Amini: Our primary demographic is 40 to 65 years old. They are really busy people, at the prime of their lives, and are sharp, and don't have lots of time. But, what we've built is a system that is super flexible, that they can hop on at any time. You don't need a CD, or hardware, it's completely web based. It's actually based on Amazon's cloud. They can hop on and play whatever games they want for the duration of time they want. Those games stimulate working memory, retention, focus, plus we also have relaxation and stress reduction games. The goal is to stimulate their brain, and the second goal is to reduce the risk of early memory loss by teaching them the most effective lifestyle habits to adopt. We are looking to teach people the right habits when they are young enough (ages 35-65) to make a difference in the long run. An example of that is we have built in daily tips, which we have put together after going through 17,000 medical studies on what to do to reduce early memory loss. One of those tips, is a half an hour fast walk, five times a week is linked to a 33 percent less risk of developing Alzheimer's. If you tell someone in science, they know that, but if you tell a regular person, they often don't know that fast walking is good for you. That's because there is a 15 to 17 year lag between science and when the general public finds that out. By doing a modicum of physical activity and changing your lifestyle, you're making a huge difference in your health in 5-10, or 15 to 20 years. It's good to invest time and care into yourself starting right now.
Was it difficult to translate the science into games?
Elizabeth Amini: It was actually really hard. We went through every cognitive training study, and looked at each to see if they worked or not, or figure out what the flaw of that game or study was when they didn't work. If they worked, we tried to figure out why, and if certain age groups benefited most. Another issue is one of measurement, It turns out most cognitive assessment tests are made for people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's, and there aren't too many tests that are sensitive enough to detect positive changes in people who are healthy and sharp. The NIH is working on building these assessment tests now.
You mentioned earlier that the customers you are targeting tend to be pretty busy-- what's your strategy to get those customers to sign up and stay?
Elizabeth Amini: Our strategy is really simple. Out of over every ten people who see the site, one or two are really gravitate or are attracted to it. Those are the innovators and early adopters. We want to grab the people who are curious, who will try to see if it works for them or not. After playing the games twice, it shows you what you did the first time, your baseline score, versus your score right now. Over time, you'll see if you are improving or not. As they improve, the will tell everybody, because they will be excited to see their memory improving. As they improve their focus and memory, and we're finding they even become happier and more self confident, those people actually do the marketing for us.
How is the firm funded?
Elizabeth Amini: We're privately funded by the founders. We made a decision not to go for venture capital early. We actually wrote the business plan in a business plan class at USC. It won a business plan contest, and we got inundated with offers from venture capitalists. But, we never were looking for funding. The more we said no, the stronger they came after us. But, the reason we ultimately said no, is because we have 20 percent in pretax earnings earmarked to fund and help lives, with prevention and cure research as well as other ways to help improve lives. We're funding things like clean water, education, and other efforts. We were worried, if we took venture capital--and this was in 2008, before everything crashed--that if we had an investor too focused on the bottom line, the first time we hit a rough patch we'd be forced to push that 20 percent down. Luckily, when the crash happened, we didn't have that kind of pressure. The other thing, which turns out to be a competitive advantage we have over our competitors, is your data is completely safe with us. We do not want to provide that data to insurance or supplement or advertising companies who, if you think about it if your mental performance is declining, are the last people you want to see your data. Compare that to our competitors, who don't know if they are being sold in two or three years, who will be buying them, and who will be seeing their customer's data in the long run. We're keeping things private, clean, and very safe.