Dr Aviva Cohen learned discipline, resilience and tenacity from becoming immersed in karate and these strengths have stood to her in business as well as in life
Her husband, Steve, was a fit and healthy 53-year-old when he suffered a catastrophic stroke that permanently damaged his speech and language. Determined to help him regain as much linguistic function as possible, Cohen began looking for rehabilitative tools that could help.
She quickly discovered that there was very little on offer and what was available was expensive and largely aimed at children. Unwilling to accept that Steve might not make progress because of a lack of appropriate therapeutic interventions, Cohen decided that if he needed exercises tailored for an adult there were undoubtedly others who needed them too and she was going to have to develop them herself.
At that time, Cohen had very little business experience and no technical knowledge. But she ploughed ahead and identified a group of multidisciplinary experts who could help her design a suite of rehabilitative exercises that would run on an iPad or Android tablet. This became Neuro Hero, which was officially launched in 2012.
As well as getting the new business off the ground, Cohen had a part-time job as a communications consultant and 24/7 caring responsibilities for her husband and two children, the youngest of whom was just 10 months old when Steve had his stroke. Keeping all the balls in the air meant surviving on four hours sleep a night for years – not something Cohen recommends but she says it was the only way to fit everything in.
Cohen immersed herself in the commercial world and between help from mentors and participation is numerous courses, within a few years she had developed the skills required to run a fledgling business.
“I still made mistakes, but I quickly realised that you should listen to advice because invariably you will learn something. Never assume you know it all, because you don’t,” she says.
“Be prepared for the fact that everything takes much longer than you expect it to take and be straight about timelines and raising money. Some people over-egg it with investors, look for a lot of money and make big promises. We’ve always been realistic, asked for what we needed – and got it – and have always delivered on time.”
More than a decade later, Neuro Hero is thriving having transitioned into the apps space, with speech and language therapies aimed at those with word-finding difficulties associated with conditions such as aphasia, stroke, dementia, brain injury and autism. The apps are now available in six languages and to date have had more than 400,000 downloads.
Having successfully launched Neuro Hero, Cohen may have been expected to ease off, but that’s not her style. She already has a PhD in philosophy and psychoanalysis from the University of Essex and in 2016 she began a postdoctoral fellowship at UCD and Queen’s University Belfast in the area of future care planning for those with severe and profound disabilities.
As a result of this research, she is now the co-founder of another new venture, SeamlessCare, which is based at Nova UCD and employs six people. Investors include Enterprise Ireland and former Health Service Executive chairman Dr Frank Dolphin.
SeamlessCare is positioned in the digital health space and its first product, the Empathic mobile app, was launched at the end of February after two years in development. “Our aim is to create products that are easy to use and can have a significant impact on the quality of life for non-verbal people as well as their families and others who provide support to them,” Cohen says.
“The inspiration for Empathic came from 14 years of caring for Steve because, over time, I had learned to understand him even though he was non-verbal. But it was always difficult for others to know how he was feeling. We want to provide ways that non-verbal people with complex needs can be more easily understood, not least because they are currently among the most technologically underserviced group of all of those with disabilities.
“In most families and care settings, there is usually one person who understands each non-verbal individual. Everyone else struggles,” Cohen adds. “With the Empathic app, anyone can make and store short recordings of the person when they are expressing happiness, boredom, frustration or up to 10 emotions. This can help carers, teachers, family, medical personnel and so on to recognise the emotion and respond accordingly.”
Steve Connor passed away in 2019 but he left his wife an unusual legacy – a mindset based around self-discipline, grit and resilience that has seen her through some dark times.
“I met Steve at university, where he coached karate, and we trained for four hours a day, six days a week,” she says. “He was incredibly good at teaching people how to play to their strengths and he taught me the value of discipline, resilience and tenacity. It was the best decision of my life to train with him and what I learned has stood to me in business as well as in life.
“One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn to do in business is to let go of an idea if it’s not working,” Cohen adds. “I once destroyed a year’s work on something because I knew it wasn’t right. It really hurt to make that decision, but it was the correct one. You can’t afford to become emotionally attached to every decision you make in a business context.”