Rick Morris does not remember the moment he decided he wanted to become an entrepreneur, but the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on one of his closest associates remains indelibly etched in his mind.
Morris’ longtime advisor suffered from the disease, which progressed over several years and wrought devastation on his advisor’s family. Morris had seen it before. His grandmother had the disease as well. He knew then he wanted to help find a way to prevent – or at least dull – the impact of the disease, which afflicts nearly 6 million people in the U.S. and about 400,000 in Texas. He’s aiming to do that with his startup GaitIQ.
“I just watched how this disease consumed their otherwise totally beautiful life,” Morris said. “I’ve reached the stage in my life that I can work on whatever I want to work on, and this is what I wanted to do.”
Morris came to San Antonio after years in the tech sector in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; California’s Silicon Valley; and Austin.
After decades running companies as a tech executive, Morris was ready to start his own from scratch. He began work in earnest on the GaitIQ concept in early 2017 and formed the company in September of that year.
Still in the research and development phase, the software Morris and his team are building will be able to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s by analyzing a patient’s gait.
The proteins that manifest as plaque in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains can start to appear early – when someone is in their 30s, Morris said. Most people who develop these proteins, however, are unaware until they show symptoms of Alzheimer’s and receive a formal diagnosis, mostly because of how costly the exams to detect them are, he said.
The hope is that GaitIQ’s Alzheimer’s screening can help stave off the disease for years and save people thousands of dollars in health care costs by detecting the disease early.
“GaitIQ is answering the question ‘What if technology could predict your future risk for dementia years or even decades ahead of what we recognize as Alzheimer’s/dementia?'” Morris said. “And we’re doing that by measuring very subtle changes in how a person walks very early in the disease progression.
“I’m convinced that through early intervention we can definitely move the needle.”
Morris and his wife moved from the San Diego area and bought a home in San Antonio, whose startup scene does not have the prestige of Morris’ previous habitations. But he would later discover the city was the perfect place to found a company like GaitIQ.
San Antonio is poised, with the presence of research and health care entities such as the Southwest Research Institute and UT Health San Antonio, as a potential hub for digital health startups, he said.
Upon meeting local entrepreneur and real estate developer Graham Weston and hearing his vision for creating a downtown startup ecosystem, Morris had an even stronger conviction in the potential for his new city.
“I’ve worked in the innovation hub in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina – that’s where I went to school at Duke [University] and lived there for 20 years. I’ve been in Silicon Valley, and I’ve been in Austin,” he said. “There’s nowhere else I could put together a company like this.”
Morris began interacting with the technologists, entrepreneurs, and digital professionals at startup incubator Geekdom. That’s where he met Barbara Schnan Mastronardi, an engineer and mathematician. Schnan Mastronardi had done significant research in the area of 3D programming and modeling in her native Argentina, which is exactly the kind of background Morris sought to build the technology behind GaitIQ.
Drawn to the idea of using her skills for good, Schnan Mastronardi joined the startup as a systems engineer.
“I always had in my mind that I wanted to use my profession for solving people issues,” she said, “and I fell in love with this project.”
She has spent the past year studying clinical research and compiling data on gait movement that have informed the algorithms that power GaitIQ’s Alzheimer’s detection technology.
For nearly the past two years GaitIQ has been developing its technology with funding from a $459,000 National Institute of Health grant. Morris said the company is hoping to land another grant – somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 million – next year. In addition to that, the company is expecting to raise a seed round in 2020, funds that it will use as it ramps up toward commercializing its Alzheimer’s screening technology.
Morris is bullish on GaitIQ’s chances of becoming not only a change agent in the digital health sphere but one of the most successful startups this city has ever seen.
“I want to build one of those Silicon Valley-class companies here in San Antonio,” he said.