Susanne Mitschke looks much younger than 27 but when she starts talking about MindMate, a free app designed and developed in Glasgow to help people affected by dementia live more independent lives, she exudes a maturity beyond her years. Dementia is a serious subject and one the award-winning entrepreneur wants to see more widely discussed.
Mitschke, MindMate’s German-born chief executive, and her co-founders Rogelio Arellano, 29, from Mexico and Patrick Renner, 27, also from Germany – all graduates from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde – are quietly focused and ambitious.
The fact the app already has more than 150,000 monthly active users and is ranked in 17 countries as the number one health app in Apple’s store is remarkable given it was only launched last September. It has also claimed a clutch of prestigious awards.
Mindmate won last year’s much-lauded Converge Challenge, the business creation competition open to staff, students and recent graduates from Scotland’s universities and research institutions. The fledgling company won £30,000 in cash and £14,000 in business support, sharing the top prize with Edinburgh-based MicroSense Technologies, a company that has developed a sensor system aimed at reducing waste in the food and drink industry.
Last summer, Mitschke and her co-founders won a place on Techstars, billed as the world’s top tech accelerator programme, in New York. MindMate was one of only 15 early-stage companies selected for the renowned scheme, which saw the team spend three months receiving mentoring from some of the tech world’s leading entrepreneurs.
According to Techstars, more than 90% of firms accepted onto the programme go on to receive more than US$2m in follow-on funding. “Techstars really opened our eyes to what is possible,” says Mitschke. “We are building a global brand and an international product so exposure to the great contacts we made during our time on the programme was invaluable and has helped us fast-track our entry in the United States market.”
With 850,000 people in the UK suffering from dementia and numbers set to increase to more than one million by 2025, it’s certainly time to talk about the disease for which there is currently no cure. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in six people over the age of 80 have dementia and there are more than 40,000 people under 65 with dementia in the UK. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting 62% of those diagnosed.
“The facts – and the figures – are stark,” says Mitschke, who studied business and economics in Vienna before completing a master’s degree in international management and leadership at the University of Glasgow. “In the US, there are more than five million people suffering from dementia. It’s a very cruel disease that affects families and carers too and it was our own different experiences of cognitive decline that led us to develop MindMate.”
While Renner, the company’s chief operations officer, had experience of working in the care system in Germany and Mitschke developed expertise in both digital health and Alzheimer’s, Arellano’s association with the disease is particularly close to home – his grandfather had the condition and he helped care for him for seven years, witnessing first-hand the everyday struggles not just of his grandfather but his family.
“We had a whiteboard on the wall with family pictures on it to help my grandfather remember who everyone was,” explains MindMate’s chief technical officer. “He would sometimes forget who I was, or confuse me with my father. It was very difficult for all of us. He would see that board every time he went into the kitchen and there would be sticky notes reminding him to take pills or eat breakfast – that type of thing.
“So, we thought if we could put all these prompts into an app and make it interactive with games, reminders – things like that – it could be such a valuable tool in stimulating people’s minds and helping them stay active. We didn’t have anything like that to help my grandfather.”
The trio, which founded the company and started developing its app two years ago, carried out market research and found that, while there were several apps designed to help people with memory loss, there wasn’t one that provided a one-stop shop solution in a user-friendly way that was also intuitive and medically backed. “That’s our point of difference,” Mitschke points out. “But, in particular, we were determined it had to be easy to use.”
MindMate has several features, including interactive games to stimulate a user’s cognitive abilities, as well as chat and video functions to help family and carers keep in touch with dementia sufferers. “People suffering from dementia can be very lonely and confused,” says Mitschke, “and this leads to isolation.
“We describe MindMate as a guardian angel, a friend who is always there to help you by giving you everything you need at your fingertips. Other apps provide brain games or advice on nutrition and exercise but if you are struggling with memory loss and are using several apps for different things and maybe Spotify for music then it can be overwhelming.
“With MindMate, you don’t have to use different apps for music, games, photographs and so on because you can access it all on our interface. It’s an empowering tool because it helps people manage their lives without having to rely on family, friends or carers all the time – it increases their quality of life and that of the people around them.”
One of its many features is a “My Story” area that allows users to store happy memories – photographs of family, friends and pets, for example. Click on the music button and there’s a host of great tunes going back to the 1930s. There are also healthy recipes, games designed to improve your brain health and exercise workouts. Reminders to help manage hospital appointments, to-do lists and a notes section are also invaluable tools for people with early-stage memory loss.
While MindMate is targeted predominately at the baby-boomer generation who like the convenience of having everything they need in the one app, it has wider appeal because everyone’s brain health can be boosted by keeping the mind active. Its benefits have also been recognised by the National Health Service, which became its first paying customer after NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde bought the care home version of the app to run on iPads following a two-month trial with a post-diagnosis dementia support group.
MindMate is currently based at the University of Glasgow’s Thomson Building in the city’s leafy West End, but would Mitschke be tempted to relocate from Scotland – and the UK – in light of Brexit and the wider political uncertainty? “Absolutely not,” she states emphatically. “Scotland is the best place to start a business,” she believes, pointing to the early support from Enterprise Campus West, linked to the University of Strathclyde. “In Germany, for example, it is very difficult if you don’t have loads of cash but there’s excellent support in Scotland for start-ups and it’s also easy to recruit because of all the talent coming out the universities, and cheaper.
“Scotland’s very innovative when it comes to encouraging start-ups – the University of Glasgow has supported us with premises for two years, which has allowed us to get on with developing the business,” she adds. “There are very high levels of collaboration and that encourages you to think beyond your own ideas and consider going in directions you hadn’t previously thought of.”
Mitschke also points to the many inspiring people here who have started from very small beginnings and now run global organisations. “Many Scottish businesses are very well respected around the world and that opens doors,” she says.
The trio’s time spent in the US, meanwhile, taught them to be more confident about scaling up. “There’s such a can-do attitude there,” says Mitschke. “The people are so enthusiastic and that helps you believe in yourself and your capabilities. After Techstars we felt that anything was possible.”
Having already raised funding of £1m, Mitschke, Arellano and Renner make no apology for their lofty ambitions. “We’re a high-growth business and we want to see a MindMate app on the iPhone or iPad of every 60-plus person in the world,” says Mitschke. “We’re collecting a massive amount of data on people who have dementia and Alzheimer’s and the number of sufferers is going to double until 2050.
“People are getting older and living longer so we shouldn’t be surprised,” she says. “It’s not just dementia sufferers our apps can help – older people also need help to live independently and there are people who have been ill and still want to live at home but need help. That’s where we see MindMate developing in the future.”
Published: 19 June 2017