Level EX brings game design chops to medical training

by James Risley
October 5, 2016

Medical training is tricky. Practicing on live patients isn’t really an option for novices, and training facilities only offer short bursts of training at high prices. But gaming tech could be the answer if Level EX gets things right.

The startup is launching its first product today: Airway EX, an app-based trainer for anesthesiologists, emergency medicine physicians and other doctors who work on airway cases. The iOS app can be used anywhere to train for using new devices and tackling complex scenarios with realistic virtual feedback.

The app is the brainchild of Sam Glassenberg, the son of a Northwestern anesthesiologist and editor at the American Medical Association. His siblings became doctors, but Glassenberg took to gaming, leading the team that developed graphics tech for Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console. However, his medical-minded family was frequently asking for him to build simulators to train their residents or their med students on new procedures.

“I'd grab some off-the-shelf game technology, and I'd build something,” Glassenberg said. “It was a great excuse to get my hands dirty.”

With the power of mobile devices on the rise, he realized that there was a business opportunity in front of him. Many minimally invasive procedures are done through a screen, and as robots appear more often in the surgical suite, the number of surgeries that are conducted on screen is sure to rise.

“We've brought some of the top game developers, artists, engineers and designers from around the country,” Glassenberg said. “They're sitting down, working hand-in-hand with expert surgeons from around the country, and we're creating these ultra-realistic surgeries that can run on your iPhone.”

The realism may be the key benefit of making the Airway EX simulator so helpful. By accurately recreating the visuals of a surgery, including how light bounces off slimy interiors, how skin reacts to touch and even how blood flows, surgeons are able to better understand the consequences of their actions.

For example, Airway EX offers simulations that place tumors in the airway, and trained surgeons can spot the bubbling saliva on one side of the tumor to know how to get around it and place a breathing apparatus in place for a surgery. Details all the way down to the involuntary cough that comes with touching certain parts of the trachea are modeled in the simulator.


The simulated image (left) compared to actual view from a real implement. 

Of course, Glassenberg’s team also brought over some gamification elements from the video game world. Users can compete for high scores and the app even allows doctors to earn credits for continuing education requirements.

Level EX is following the standard freemium monetization model known from many other games on the app store, with a free download available to test the app, but many simulations locked behind a paywall. However, the company is also looking into sponsorships.

New medical devices aren’t just something a doctor picks up over the weekend — they require training time and testing to make sure they’re right for the job. With Level EX’s apps, device manufacturers could sponsor levels and showcase their tools to new users before they invest in the physical objects.

Level EX is only introducing Airway EX for iOS today, but it plans to bring the app to Android shortly. After that, it will develop new simulators for other medical training needs, bridging the gap between game development tech and the latest medical innovations.

The company has raised $2.15 million in an initial seed round led by JAZZ Venture Partners, a San Francisco-based venture firm with portfolio companies focused on neuroscience and human performance, and Chicago-based Pritzker Group Venture Capital. Level EX has about 20 employees at launch, including both gaming professionals and senior management from the healthcare industry.  

Images via Level EX

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