Recently, a competition was held for all the local universities who sourced their most interesting student startups, and the winner of that top 100 DMV student startup competition is here with us in the studio today. Benjamin Pikus is the founder of MoTrack Therapy, a company that’s using motion tracking and gamification to assist patients with physical therapy exercises.
ABERMAN: Well, you’re hard at it. You’ve got a start up, you’re going at it. What is MoTrack Therapy actually about?
PIKUS: So the idea is, when you go through physical therapy, you have two parts: one in the clinic, where you’re working with your therapist, and you have one where you’re at home, and you’re doing exercises, which is the real key to your recovery. Like with everything in medicine, compliance is a huge issue. So, patients just don’t do their exercises. They’re boring. They don’t have feedback. So, a lot of patients choose not to do them. The idea of MoTrack Therapy is to track the patients’ exercises using their cell phone camera. We give them a fun game to motivate them, we give them feedback to make sure they’re doing it correctly, and then we send the data to the therapist so they know exactly what’s going on.
ABERMAN: So, I’ve been through physical therapy for a knee injury, and you’re absolutely right. The exercises hurt, they’re boring, and it takes a lot to push through it. That’s what you’re addressing.
PIKUS: Right. And you’re not alone, because only 35 percent of people actually go through all the exercises that the therapy says.
ABERMAN: So, Benjamin, this strikes me as a very smart business to launch, that I would think there’s a lot interest in, but how did you, as a student, come up with this as a business idea? Shouldn’t you just be ordering late-night pizzas and drinking a lot of beer?
PIKUS: We actually started at a Hackathon. The idea of a Hackathon is, you get a weekend, you get a couple of buddies at the University, and you try to put together an idea. Usually it’s software-based, just because that’s what you have time for. So, this was freshman fall. We stumbled upon the technology, put together a rudimentary solution, and then pitched it to a couple of judges, who gave us some positive feedback, said keep working on it, and maybe it’ll go somewhere. We, through that, met a couple doctors, luckily bumped into into a PI who ended up running a clinical trial with us. It kind of just started with a late night and pizza!
ABERMAN: You’re at Hopkins. Is that University particularly amenable to this type of thing?
PIKUS: They’re getting a lot better. They have a really strong medical ecosystem, with a great med school, a lot of great research going on, and they recently created Fast Forward, which is an organization which works with student entrepreneurs. They’ve recently done a great job working with students, they’re opening up a new space in the fall. So, they’re really pushing the bar, and giving students the chance to get funding, and connect with people, connect with doctors, and start medical startups.
ABERMAN: Were you a coder in high school, or a tech guy? How did you come to this?
PIKUS: I was barely a coder. “Coder” in quotes.
ABERMAN: Is that right?
PIKUS: Yeah, I maybe coded one year in high school. So I couldn’t do much, came to Hopkins, actually wanted to do wet lab, which is in the lab, working with the pipette. I stumbled upon this, was lucky enough to meet a couple people who were coders or passionate about solving this issue. So, it’s really been one lucky ride that I’m fortunate to be on.
ABERMAN: And what’s it like, to be a student and starting your own business? I must say that the image that I tend to see shared, when it comes to student entrepreneurs, is: don’t bother finishing college, just go off and do it. You know, people think about Mark Zuckerberg as the poster child. But you’re in school, on your path, sticking with it. How hard is it to be involved in entrepreneurial activity, and continue to do the hard work necessary to progress in an academic setting?
PIKUS: Yeah, parents for sure wouldn’t let me drop out. That was never an option. It’s challenging, I’m not probably as involved in campus life as I would be. Really, outside of school and MoTrack Therapy, I don’t do a lot of other things. But on the other hand, you know, doing MoTrack is more fun and engaging and meaningful than really anything else I’d be doing. So, I wouldn’t give it up.
ABERMAN: What’s fun about it?
PIKUS: It’s really fun to work with therapists and patients. The other day, I was with a therapist and patient meeting, and this a patient who had been using our product for a while, and said, I like this so much that I’d actually like to invest. Something like that was really meaningful, that validation that this is actually something that is helping people.
ABERMAN: Now, I know your company’s coming along, and that it’s a very interesting business. I’m not surprised to hear that people are interested in it. Do you find that you now think about yourself differently? Do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur, where maybe you didn’t before? What’s it like?
PIKUS: There’s certainly a transition, I think, especially in the beginning. The first year and a half, I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur, I thought of myself as working on a project. As we started getting through our clinical trials, and working through that, and more interacting with patients, approaching more of the business aspects, design business plans, it started to click a little more. But it was kind of a slow, organic shift, and thinking, It wasn’t one day I woke up and oh, now I’m an entrepreneur. Some mornings I wake up think, I’m in way over my head, I don’t know what I’m doing. Yeah, there’s definitely been a shift, where, before, school came first. Now I think it’s a one-A, one-B situation.
ABERMAN: As you look at this now, and you see what the experience has been for you, do you think that we’re doing a good enough job in our education system of exposing students to entrepreneurship, and allowing them to have the experiences you’re having?
PIKUS: No. It’s an easy answer, but I think entrepreneurship is really all about failure. You’re trying stuff, you’re not getting it to work. You change a little bit, you change a lot. It’s just a constant iteration. Whereas in school, it’s all about not failing. You’re taught to avoid failure as much as possible. It’s about not being afraid to fail, which a lot of entrepreneurs talk about. It’s something I don’t think our educational system really prepares for.
ABERMAN: That’s really insightful, and as insightful as your business. Benjamin, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.