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How IMD’s EMBA helped drive the success of neurotechnology unicorn MindMaze

One company’s journey from inception to success
February 2016

Earlier this year, neurotechnology startup MindMaze raised $250 million from the Hinduja Group and others for a valuation in excess of USD $1 billion, putting them in the club of the so-called Unicorns. Chosen through the annual IMD Startup Competition, 25 ventures work with IMD’s MBA and EMBA participants each year. In 2012, MindMaze was selected as an ambitious concept, led by neuroscientist Tej Tadi, to fuse virtual reality with healthcare in helping stroke victims undergo a more effective recovery and treatment.

To investigate and experience entrepreneurship and innovation, the IMD EMBA participants head out on a weeklong “Discovery Expedition” to Silicon Valley each year. They explore how companies, large and small, manage innovation, creativity and profitability. To cement the experience, they put themselves in the shoes of entrepreneurs, trying to understand how and why they “create something from nothing,” which ones are able to put the customer at the center of their product through design thinking, how they interact with the large companies who left “the garage” long ago, what means they use to convince venture capitalists to back them, and how they might scale up to reach global markets. Companies like MindMaze work closely with the EMBAs, and then the EMBAs pitch these ambitious start-ups to venture capitalists and angel investors in Silicon Valley.

“It’s gratifying, but not surprising, to see Tej’s success. I was fortunate to meet him during the IMD EMBA Silicon Valley VC Pitch exercise and was blown away by the technology he developed that can help thousands recover from the debilitating effect of a stroke. Like most great entrepreneurs, he has shown the perseverance and flexibility to convince investors of Mindmaze’s potential,” said Jerry Gramaglia, an Angel Investor.
A diverse team of 2012 Executive MBA participants, including a Russian Asset Manager, a French corporate executive, a Brazilian commercial manager, a Swiss banker and a Danish health minister, partnered with Tadi to assess the start-up and pitch a growth to the Silicon Valley panel of Venture Capitalists. “What caught my attention from the beginning was Tej’s right level of confidence to pursue his vision,” recalls Leonardo Matos, EMBA and currently Key Account Manager at Neste.

Michael Steinhoefel-Cordova, currently Director of Internal Audit at Citi, notes “From the first moment I liked the product and the value offering of MindMaze. Improving rehabilitation of stroke patients through virtual reality technology is a very compelling offering. The medical research background of the founder underlined his sincere vision. I developed a passion for the product and pitching the product became easy. While pitching the product you could literally sense how listeners got fascinated as well.”

How would Tej and the EMBAs carve out a new industry and correctly identify its customers with an idea that sounded like something out of science fiction? Competitors like Oculus Rift had a head start and MindMaze risked getting lost in the buzz. “Persistence, persistence and more persistence is needed as an entrepreneur,” is the reflection of Steinhoefel-Cordova. Julien Lacour-Gayet, also on the EMBA team and currently CEO & Co-Founder at NEXVAP remembers, “Melting down the rationale of the technology and benefits in less than three minutes was the biggest challenge. We had the impression that we were never going to be able to convey the features and benefits of the value proposition, and I remember the fights we had as a group as to how we should explain it… at three o’clock in the morning, six hours prior to the pitch.”

“This was a transformational experience,” said Lacour-Gayet. “I took that leap 18 months later, I created my own venture; we are now eight full time employees and have raised USD $5 million in private equity… I have never felt this good in my professional life.”

Today, MindMaze has advanced in leaps and bounds. Not only have they developed an innovative platform to build intuitive human machine interfaces combining virtual reality (VR), computer graphics, brain imaging & neuroscience for applications in healthcare, but MindMaze has also extended to exciting new applications in gaming and brain machine control. The company now has 52 employees – an eclectic mix of computer scientists, neuroscientists, physicists and roboticists driven by a passion to enhance the quality of life of brain injury survivors. As Tej told the Economic Times “MindMaze wants to become the (top) neuro-medical device company in the world.”

The IMD Executive MBA program is a rigorous degree program that prepares fast-rising, internationally experienced managers for broader and more challenging leadership positions. Find out more at wwwtest.imd.org/emba