Hi! It’s me, Spiffy, the interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with the latest scoop on entrepreneurs tackling UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being and making a difference in healthcare! Today I have the opportunity to sit and talk to Dr. Omid Kavehei, a senior lecturer at The University of Sydney, and the founder and director of BrainConnect Pty Ltd. Dr. Kavehei is working hard to make life better for people who have epilepsy. Let’s see how he’s doing it!
Spiffy: Welcome, doctor, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Let’s jump right in! Can you tell me what challenge you’re addressing?
Dr. Kavehei: It’s wonderful to meet you too, Spiffy. Did you know that epilepsy affects about one percent of the world’s population and is one of the most common, complex, and widely misunderstood neurological disorders, impacting people of all ages and genders? Epilepsy causes unprovoked seizures, which can briefly disturb the brain’s electrical activity and cause temporary interruption or changes in bodily functions, movement, awareness, behavior, or feelings. Objective counting of seizures is essential in the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy. We aim to help nearly 35% of epilepsy patients who never achieve full seizure control using artificial intelligence (AI) empowered seizure prediction and intervention systems.
Spiffy: This sounds like a major medical issue that needs a solution! What motivated you to try to improve the lives of epilepsy patients?
Dr. Kavehei: Epilepsy is an extremely misunderstood disease. While it is more common than multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy, the public seems to know less about epilepsy. Some people still think it is contagious and the stigma around it is just unbearable. Overall, 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point in their lifetime, and it is more common in young children and older people. My grandmother, who passed away when I was in primary school, was never diagnosed with epilepsy but she had a terrible traumatic brain injury that caused severe memory loss and occasional seizures. Now I know she may have had undiagnosed epilepsy.
Spiffy: I didn’t realize there was still a stigma around epilepsy. Can you talk about how you’re working to eliminate that stigma and make the world more equitable for people who deal with epilepsy?
Dr. Kavehei: Well, Spiffy, nearly 80% of epilepsy cases are living in low to middle-income countries where access to care is not often sufficient nor reliable, and where only a handful of neurologists are available. Access to sufficient care, whether it’s home monitoring and telehealth with qualified physicians on the other side of the planet, or solutions that allow patients to take control of their disease management when drugs are not effective, could be one way to address the huge equality gap in epilepsy treatment around the world.
Spiffy: That sounds like that could be a game-changer! Can you tell me what initiative you’re working on right now?
Dr. Kavehei: Well Spiffy, we are on track to develop a new stimulations strategy that learns patients' individual neural signatures and provides stimulation when necessary.
Spiffy: No way, that would be amazing! I’m curious if you’ve ever faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from failure?
Dr. Kavehei: Research in medical fields is extremely challenging. We require ethics to work with our data—this means that we need to ensure our research is ethical in all aspects at all times. This takes time and can delay things significantly causing major frustration. Believing in the transformational power of research keeps me hopeful and motivated. Access to facilities and a lack of sufficient funding continues to be a massive issue which means 20-50% of my research time is spent searching and attracting funds for the project.
Spiffy: Well, Dr. Kavehei, I hope someone reads this and reaches out to you! Have you learned anything unexpected from someone recently?
Dr. Kavehei: Yes, Spiffy, I’ve learned that people living with epilepsy are demographically less well off than other people who have neurological disorders—such as people with MS. We think this is because people with epilepsy are often diagnosed at a young age, live with the condition longer, and take medication that can cause depression and developmental issues for a very long time into adulthood.
Spiffy: Wow, that’s significant, plus there are all the costs associated with treating epilepsy. Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Dr. Kavehei: Only committed, resilient, and motivated people who are willing to take risks and aren’t afraid of failure can and will change the world. Being smart or having a high IQ is not enough!
Spiffy: Thanks for taking the time to demonstrate what commitment, resilience, and motivation look like, Dr. Kavehei. It’s been an honor speaking with you today.
Dr. Omid Kavehei is a senior lecturer and SOAR Fellow at The University of Sydney, Australia. Prior to this appointment, he was with the Centre for Neural Engineering at the University of Melbourne, a lecturer with RMIT University from 2014 and 2017, and a visiting project scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2012. Dr. Kavehei was awarded a PhD in nanoelectronics with the Postgraduate University Alumni Medal from the University of Adelaide. (First published on the Ladderworks website on November 22, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.