We chat to Keiron Sparrowhawk, CEO of brain training business MyCognition, trying to improve the lives of individuals with cognitive defects like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?
MyCognition is a leading provider of personalised brain training programmes. We aim to change people’s lives by measuring and improving their cognition through adaptive and engaging assessments and video training games.
I founded the business in 2011 – the original inspiration was to improve the quality of life for individuals with cognitive deficits due to conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, however the broader benefits of enhanced cognitive function for everyone soon became clear, broadening our purpose.
What time does your day usually start and end?
If you’re doing something you enjoy doing and that you’re passionate about it’s hard to say when your working day really starts and ends as you never really switch off from it. Officially my working day is from 7am – 7pm, but I regularly attend evening events too.
What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?
Being able to change people’s lives is a fantastic reward for what I do. I have seen children who have been written off at school and told that they’re just no good at English and Maths completely transformed after taking MyCognition’s assessment and training programmes. It’s wonderful to see the confidence of some of these children finally return and to see them feel able to engage in lessons and classroom activities once more.
As a naturally creative person I probably least enjoy the rules and regulations involved with running a science-led digital healthcare business. While obviously important, rules and formal processes can feel like they’re holding you back, which is frustrating when you’re trying to grow a company.
What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)
I worked in R&D for some of the biggest players in the pharmaceutical industry for many years, helping to bring to market numerous successful drugs for conditions such as migraine, epilepsy and depression. I wasn’t born with confidence, I gained it through life experience and through gaining my masters degree. It was doing my MBA that finally gave me the confidence to leave the safety of the corporate world and set up my own business. I always wanted to leave a legacy and to make a difference, not by being a boss, but by being a good leader.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
Studying product development as part of my MBA really opened my eyes to the potential impact of making a product that genuinely changes people’s lives. At the same time I saw a video of someone who was playing a video game while having an MRI scan. Seeing the different parts of the brain light up as they played made me realise the potential of video games to enhance cognition – and the idea of MyCognition was born.
How did you fund your business?
In 2003, I co-founded my first business, a pharmaceutical pricing consultancy called PriceSpective, which I sold in 2012. The sale of this company enabled me to start and fund MyCognition.
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
We disrupt existing norms and practices, which can mean that we face a certain amount of resistance from some in the sectors that we work in – health, education and business. To provide the necessary evidence we are doing clinical trials for our products, a long and more costly route to market, but a necessary one.
Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?
The only bad experiences are the ones that you don’t learn from. If you don’t make mistakes you may be playing it too safe.
For MyCognition, in hindsight, when starting out I didn’t know the technology world well enough and I underestimated how difficult it would be to get our programmes up and running. We should have bought a technology expert in-house much sooner.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?
Hire the best people you can and do everything to help them grow individually and to help them grow your business.
What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?
I exercise by walking and going to the gym. I’ve just written a book about being a better leader, Executive Function: Cognitive Fitness for Business, and a lot of the tips focus on making small but critical lifestyle changes such as ensuring you get enough sleep and taking exercise. I try to practice what I preach as to be a leader you have to look after your own health.
Do you manage to achieve a good work/life balance?
Not really. To be honest, I have always struggled with this as if you really enjoy your work it’s hard to separate it from the rest of your life. I have made sacrifices in my personal life, which has affected others, but I’m still so driven. I never want to retire.