Games for health
By Jill Pease
Sheryl Flynn, Ph.D., had known for a long time that she wanted to be a physical therapist, a decision she made at age 9. But she had no idea she’d end up putting her physical therapy and movement science expertise to use as the CEO of a tech company that develops health video games.
Flynn’s company, Blue Marble Game Co., was recently named to the UF Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s Gator100, which recognizes the 100 fastest-growing, Gator-owned or Gator-led businesses in the world. Blue Marble Game Co. ranked fifth.
Blue Marble creates evidence-based rehabilitation video games for patients with problems with attention, memory, executive function or visual perception. The games were first developed to help veterans with post-concussion syndrome, but the applications now extend to many other diagnoses, including ADHD, mild autism, cognitive decline in aging, stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. A new game, Health in Motion, is designed to prevent falls and improve balance in older adults. The games collect performance data that clinicians can use to track patients’ progress.
Founded in 2007, Blue Marble has received more than $6 million in grants and contracts from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.
Blue Marble can be traced to an idea Flynn had while working on her UF Ph.D. in motor control and neuroscience after earning a master’s degree in physical therapy from the College of Public Health and Health Professions in 1997. Her mentor, Andrea Behrman, Ph.D., a former faculty member in the department of physical therapy, was researching treadmill-based locomotor training to restore walking in people with incomplete spinal cord injury. Flynn’s dissertation research focused on studying the therapy in rats.
“I became curious about the idea of an enriched environment motivating an animal to move rather than just being put on a treadmill and moving the animal’s limbs for it,” Flynn said. “I wondered if I put them in a big cage with toys and running wheels and stuff to climb on and places to nest, if that internal drive to move around would have a greater effect than the treadmill.”
After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the UF McKnight Brain Institute, she put research aside for a while and taught at Georgia State University in Atlanta. But she thought about the patient motivation issue again when she saw kids in a mall playing a Sony PlayStation video game that projected players’ images on screen while they interacted with objects virtually.
“I started to ask myself, ‘Is this the kind of enriched environment similar to what I used with my rats where a person is intrinsically motivated to hit these soccer balls on the screen? Maybe that’s the kind of program that I’m looking for in terms of a human enriched environment,’” Flynn recalls.
Flynn began learning all she could about video game development. She moved to California to be closer to her mentors at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. She contacted several companies to inquire about collaborating on games with therapeutic applications, but found there wasn’t a lot of interest in health games at that time. So she decided to start her own company.
Now Flynn leads a team of 14, including clinical research, production and marketing staff. Blue Marble’s goal is to eventually launch a new product every six months. Flynn cites changes in health care as one of the reasons for Blue Marble’s success.
“We’re moving from a quantity- to a quality-based system with more attention paid to patient satisfaction and empowerment,” she said. “There is a desire to let patients have more information and say in their health care, but there aren’t a lot of tools yet to help with that. Our products can enable that piece.”