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Spotlight: Michael Fox, '91

Betting on Tech for Dyslexics

Courtesy Michael Fox

BIO-READ-BACK:Fox promotes a way to retrain brains.

By Christine Foster

It looks a bit like a scene out of a science fiction flick: a man sits facing a computer, while a monitor tracks his heart rate. Moving, flashing lights—synchronized to the user’s heartbeats—appear on the screen. The man mouses through an exercise, pointing and clicking on designated spots. The flashing lights are designed to reprogram the man’s brain.

This is BrightStar, a high-tech treatment for dyslexia, and businessman Michael Fox, who majored in industrial engineering at Stanford, is leading efforts to commercialize this program.

After working a few years at Goldman Sachs, Fox, a married father of three, started an investment and management company. Epoch Innovations sought to capitalize on health technologies. In 1999, Fox came across the work of some Israeli scientists who were using lights to stimulate specific portions of the brain. Their technology creates a visual stimulation field tailored to the individual user who performs designated tasks that exercise and strengthen specific parts of the brain, enabling them to process information more efficiently. The market is big: an estimated one in 10 Americans has dyslexia, and many of the existing treatments, such as intensive tutoring, still can leave dyslexics lagging several years behind their peers.

At BrightStar, potential customers go through an extensive assessment to see whether this biofeedback program is likely to help them. About 80 percent of those tested are encouraged to sign up for a six-week course of biofeedback sessions and tutoring costing from $1,600 to $2,500.

The company says it has helped more than 1,000 customers at its centers in London and Palo Alto and that most clients improve their reading ability by two grade levels, as measured by standard literacy tests. Customers who aren’t satisfied are offered a full money-back guarantee; Fox says about 3 percent of the clients have requested refunds.

Some veteran voices in the treatment of dyslexia have raised concerns about BrightStar, saying the program has not been adequately tested. Tom Viall, former executive director of the International Dyslexia Association in Baltimore, told the San Jose Mercury News, “IDA is never going to say we’re against research or trying something new,” Viall said. “What we’re against is creating false hope.”

Fox says his company provides “probably the most scientific treatment out there.” Indeed, he believes it would be remiss to delay BrightStar’s progress in the marketplace. And he points to studies that back the company’s claim of success, including one by Sam Savage, a consulting professor in management science and engineering.

Fox hopes to set up partnerships with private and government agencies, both in the United States and overseas, to treat children and adults who are hampered by their disability. “It is rare in life that you have an opportunity to do well and do good at the same time,” he says. “It’s such a great feeling . . . to know you are changing people’s lives.”

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