Elli Kaplan ’93 fights to stop Alzheimer’s before it starts

February 14, 2017 at 2:09 PM

Tests to predict the onset of diabetes or heart disease are commonplace — and they save lives. But there has never been a test to predict the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease — until now.

Thanks to the innovations of the health care startup Neurotrack, anyone with a home computer can take a five-minute online assessment to predict their risk of age-related cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s. Elli Kaplan ’93, co-founder and CEO of Neurotrack, has been instrumental in making this assessment tool available to the public.

In the assessment, subjects sit in front of a computer and watch a series of images flashed onto the screen while the webcam tracks their eye movements. Some of the images are familiar and others are novel. People with healthy brains look at the new images first, while those whose brains are deteriorating are attracted to familiar ones.

Photo of Elli Kaplan ’93
Elli Kaplan ’93

“We’d had a longer version of the test, but we launched the five-minute assessment in November, and already thousands of people around the world have taken it,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan sees neurocognitive decline conditions such as Alzheimer’s as a global scourge that could bankrupt the world economy by 2050 because of the expenses related to the skilled nursing these types of diseases require. According to Kaplan, as many as 50 percent of people will have some form of Alzheimer’s by age 85. As the population is living longer, the number of people with cognitive decline will inevitably increase.

"Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, and there’s been minimal if any success in diagnosing and treating it,” Kaplan said. “Data show that there is no disease-modifying drug that can effectively treat symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. So we are really in need of new approaches to this problem — worldwide.”

For Kaplan, tackling complex global problems has been a lifelong passion. She has worked in both the public and private sectors to increase economic, social and physical well-being in populations around the world.

Kaplan’s entrée into professional life began when she was a junior at Mount Holyoke and studied with Anthony Lake, then a professor of international relations. Lake went on to become national security advisor in the Clinton administration.

“Tony jump-started my career in government,” Kaplan said. “After I graduated from Mount Holyoke, my first job out of school was working as a special assistant for legislative affairs in the U.S. State Department.”

She soon rose to become chief of staff for U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

“Many of the most difficult global issues are components of public policy,” Kaplan said. “That was the realm that excited me the most. I like solving complex problems, and I wanted to start tackling those in the private sector.”

Moving on to American International Group Inc. (AIG Capital Partners), a private equity firm, Kaplan evaluated investment opportunities in Asia, Latin America and Eastern and Central Europe. Partly as a result of that international experience, she was tapped to join the United Nations Development Programme as deputy chief of staff in 2000 and worked there for three years.

“I came into health care through public policy,” Kaplan said. “I was pre-med at Mount Holyoke — I’m from a family of physicians — and that’s the germ of my interest in a health care startup.”

Kaplan met Neurotrack’s co-founder, Stuart Zola, a leading neuroscientist at Emory University, when she was living in Atlanta after graduating from Harvard Business School in 2005. With Zola as her science guru, Kaplan applied her formidable skills in finance and public policy to founding Neurotrack.  

"Having had a lot of different jobs gives you the flexibility to have an open mind about how to build a business and who your potential customers are,” Kaplan said. “Because I’ve seen so many different industries and perspectives, I was able to navigate this new realm.”

She recalled the early days of launching Neurotrack, when she went against the conventional wisdom about what investors to bring on board.

"When I first raised venture capital money, everyone encouraged me to go to traditional health care investors,” Kaplan said. “But I thought that would pigeonhole me. I needed investors who could think big and in almost contrarian ways. Investors who could support us in our innovation.”

Kaplan believes in a three-pronged approach for making progress with Alzheimer’s: raise the public profile of the disease, reduce its stigma and increase advocacy for research and treatment. Neurotrack has served as a conduit for non-symptomatic patients to participate in clinical trials that she hopes will prevent the full-blown onset of the disease.

“We believe that, like diabetes or heart disease, Alzheimer’s can be prevented through lifestyle modifications,” Kaplan said. “Neurotrack not only identifies people at risk but also has online coaching to help them keep their bodies and brains healthy.”

Thinking back to the genesis of her career, Kaplan said, “I got a really good education at Mount Holyoke, and I had incredible access to my professors. That set me up for success and gave me a level of confidence I might not have had otherwise.”

Abigail Meisel

Written by Abigail Meisel