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Rojahn, Jakob & Ilya, Founders Of NeuroNation



Today, The Asian Entrepreneur sat down and spoke with the 3 masterminds behind one of the most popular cross platform apps for the mind, NeuroNation. Innovative as it is, we got down and personal with the 3 founders and got to know more about their journey. Meet Rojahn Ahmadi(left), Ilya Shabanov(center) and Jakob Futorjanski(right).


So guys, tell us about about yourselves.

Ilya: Rojahn  was born in Iran and was 2 years old when his family moved to Germany. Jakob and I are both from the former Soviet Union and moved to Germany at ages 9 (Jakob) and 10 (Ilya), respectively.

Jakob, Rojahn and I all share a strong academic and professional background in computer science and artificial intelligence.

At 15, Rojahn and I started working for a Berlin media agency specializing in the development of online games. During the 10-years of employment for the company, Rojahn and Ilya founded OneExtraGames, an online portal whose pilot game “Agony: The Portal” generated over 10 Million gameplays on the web.

Jakob: After focusing on artificial intelligence in financial transactions during my studies, I began my career with PricewaterhouseCoopers Advisory in the financial consultancy business. Later on, I joined Rocket Internet and developed Groupon Amsterdam as a Regional Director before moving on to the Groupon HQ Management Team in Berlin, where Rojahn, Ilya and I teamed up to make NeuroNation the European market leader for brain training.

Rojahn: NeuroNation first came to life as a side project in late 2008 but we did not pursue it further until after our diploma in 2010. So the summer of 2010 marks the birth of the NeuroNation platform. After a scholarship from the BEUTH University, we were able to make NeuroNation our full-time job.

In your own words what is NeuroNation?

Jakob: NeuroNation is a fun and effective workout for your brain. Scientific collaborations with German universities ensure its effectiveness: Like a personal trainer NeuroNation has designed a fitness test to determine your potential and offers entertaining brain exercises to improve your memory, focus, logical thinking and problem solving skills. A social network helps you stay motivated, after all competing against your buddy can give your training routine that cherry on top.

How did you come up with the idea of NeuroNation?

Rojahn: NeuroNation was born out of our curiosity for the human brain and the potential for improving its performance. When we started with NeuroNation, the online offers for digital brain health were slim to say the least. We played Dr. Kawashima’s brain training for a while, but weren’t too happy with the actual science behind it. All of us have a strong interest in game development, so we started getting excited about the idea of making a relevant contribution to online games and brain fitness.

Could you walk us through the process of starting up NeuroNation?

Ilya: After engaging with Dr. Kawashima as a fun brain game for a while, we started researching the effects of cognitive exercises on the human brain. We were intrigued: was there a way to develop an actual scientific, yet game-like brain training? Something fun, yet effective?

The Cogito Study by the Max Planck Institute belongs to a series of scientific publications to show that online brain training works under conditions of a solid scientific background, high personalization and user motivation.

To create an effective, scientifically-based product, we reached out to the Freie Universität Berlin and the Technische Universität Dortmund, where leading neuroscientists supported us in the development of NeuroNation.

A study conducted by Prof. Dr. Niedeggen from the Division of Experimental Psychology and Neuropsychology proved that NeuroNation works.

In the first stages after the NeuroNation-launch, a virtual currency was used to access single games. A One-Time-Payment-model followed and today we’re working with a subscription model similar to gym membership.

This was quite a long way with a lot of ups and downs, I strongly believe that perseverance separates the successful founders from the not so successful ones.


Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup and if so, how did you guys overcome it?

Rojahn: Founding a company can be a strenuous process, especially in the beginning stages. Monetization proved to be a particular challenge. We had some bad experiences with potential investors, who tried to get insights to our product and then created a copycat. They failed and taught us to be more careful in the following years of the monetization process.

How have you been developing NeuroNation since startup?

Rojahn: We began with a scholarship from the BEUTH University of Berlin and a small private loan from a bank, a bit later NeuroNation became one of the first ever companies to be crowdfunded in Germany. Later we partnered up with the most influential people and companies in brain fitness, related business areas and publishers, developed co-branded products, which helped our partners monetize their traffic and closed mutually beneficial cooperations. This kept us financed up to the point of the first big investment by Spiegel and XLHealth.

What kind of feedback did you get for NeuroNation so far?

Ilya: The feedback so far has been very positive. Our close cooperation with leading scientists in combination with our own expertise in developing entertaining online games has given us a competitive edge. Distinctions such as the Leonardo-Health Award for digital prevention show us the support and appreciation from the digital health community. In 2014 we have also started collaborations with nursing homes, a German health insurance company and numerous companies from many different backgrounds.

Most importantly, we are in close contact with our consumers and greatly appreciate their input. NeuroNation constantly strives for improvement and could not exist without constructive feedback. I strongly believe our members realize that we highly value the scientific foundation of our product and that we would never compromise in this matter. This is one of the core reasons why our users stick with us.

Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?

Rojahn: Competition in the digital brain health market is fierce, we are counting quite a few copycats in German Speaking Countries and probably over 100 globally. In light of demographic change and a society permanently overloaded with information, a healthy brain becomes more and more important.

NeuroNation’s best practice combines a scientific approach with elements of gamification. NeuroNation was developed in cooperation with leading neuroscientists and is updated to state-of-the-art studies on a regular basis. To guarantee our brain training’s effectiveness, the cooperation with the Freie Universität Berlin and the Technische Universität Dortmund is very important.

NeuroNation is a highly personalized brain training perfectly adapting to its user’s needs and potential. Elements of gamification ranging from individual progress reports to social-media-shareability increase the user’s motivation for the training. For instance, members can share their top scores via Facebook or Twitter and compare their brain performance to their friends’ results. According to the research of Susanne Jaeggi, PhD, from the University of California Irvine, motivation is a vital ingredient of successful cognitive training.

How do you plan to stay relevant in this industry?

Rojahn: To stay relevant in the digital brain health market means to provide the most engaging and effective brain training possible. We continuously work on increasing the engagement and effectiveness of our games by expanding our scientific collaborations and optimize based on our users’ feedback. Compared to our competitors we never compromise on effectivity, we do not want the customer to pay for false promises.

I think this is the crucial difference between us and our competitors.

We also strive to consolidate our B2B partnerships and broaden our clientele. Digital prevention in Alzheimer’s, the neurological rehabilitation of stroke patients as well as the prevention of stress and burnout are highly relevant factors in today’s health sector and present great growth potential. At present, a German health insurance refunds NeuroNation for stroke patients in neuro rehabilitation.

What is the future of the industry in your opinion?

Jakob: The digital brain health market is expected to expand to a volume of $6bn by 2020 and chances are we can expand our European leadership beyond the continent’s borders.

What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia? Is it harder or easier, why?

Jakob: Asia is an extremely important market for NeuroNation. The people in Asian countries have been the first to recognize the importance of cognitive excellence and training. Much earlier than Europe, Asia has invested in human capital, psychometric tests and promoted innovative education measures. Therefore, for us, on the one hand, we find the Asian market to be more open to brain fitness and brain training than other regions. On the other hand, the Asian consumer is used to high-quality offers, so any digital brain health company has to make sure to be on top of their game when preparing to launch in Asia. This is why we are extremely happy about the positive feedback from 13 Asian App-Stores making us one of the leading education app providers in the market.


What is your opinion on Asian entrepreneurship vs Western entrepreneurship?

Ilya: As a Berlin startup with founders whose roots lie in Russia and Iran, the appreciation for Asian entrepreneurship is high. Hard work, innovation and discipline are three values we take from our frequent analyses of Asian entrepreneurship. Western entrepreneurs tend to act locally. They do not launch their products fast enough in other countries. Asian entrepreneurs think bigger and act faster in this context.

What is your definition of success?

Jakob: We believe that our success should be a benefit to the society we live in. We build NeuroNation with the idea to provide scientifically researched products with real benefits for our users while still being as fun as your everyday candy crush session.

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

Ilya: The idea of a free mind is deeply rooted inside my character. Even though I have worked for other companies during my university time, I always felt that I had to become an entrepreneur at some point to live this freedom. When the university just casually invited us to participate in a business plan competition we took the small step, without knowing anything about entrepreneurship but with a strong conviction that it is the right thing to do. The small step became the first in a year long journey which probably will keep leading me to new places over and over again in the future.

What do you think are the most important things entrepreneurs should keep in mind?

Jakob: Think through your ideas and talk about them with potential customers. Do it often and with different people. Create and iterate fast!

To me, this is one of the most important aspects of entrepreneurship.

In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Jakob: Focus, passion, discipline

Ilya: and perseverance

Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there?

Ilya: The only boundary there is the belief that there are boundaries.

Rojahn: People who are afraid of changes, will never change anything.

Jakob: Never stop exploring and trying new things. Just start creating and with time you will find a way to success.



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Science is the Next Big Thing in Startups



From pharmaceuticals to petrochemical processes: Newcomer companies and investors and investors alike are setting their sights on science. How the start-up scene moves beyond the mobile apps bubble…

For the last two years Silicon Valley analysts and venture capitalists are anticipating the burst of yet another bubble. This time, under the risk are the mobile start-ups which constitute the biggest share of the market. Out of 50 companies listed in Forbes’ “the hottest startup of 2015” (by valuation) only six companies are based on innovations in other-than-mobile area, one company provide cleaning services, while the rest are diverse mobile apps.

Meanwhile many products listed can be barely called innovative. A significant proportion of the listed start-ups are texting apps, apps for people search (starting from business partners to life partners) or delivery services. While those services can definitely facilitate one’s life, in general they differ from their predecessors by only a narrower audience.

Many venture investors expect stagnation if not decrease on the markets, which is why they start to transfer their capitals from start-ups offering customers software to start-ups offering specific solutions for existing businesses. Such companies are expected to demonstrate more stability in the near future.

The Market for Mobile Apps Might be Saturated

Back in 2012 a talented entrepreneur could walk into a venture capitalist’s office, say his startup was a mobile-first solution for pretty much any problem (payments! photos! blogging!), and walk out with a good-size seed investment. “That pitch was enough to get going,” says Roelof Botha, a partner with VC firm Sequoia Capital. “It’s not enough anymore.”

“I think investors are bored with investing in another messaging app. And our idea is crazy enough that it might just work. ”, has declared in 2014 Nadir Bagaveyev a founder of a start-up using 3-D printers to make rocket engines. By 2016 the company attracted investors funding sufficient to launch its first rocket.

Pharma and Biotech Start-Ups in High Demand

Currently the most successful science-based start-ups are the companies offering innovative solutions in the field of pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies. It’s noteworthy that despite the previous revelations and even judicial proceedings the list of the most expensive start-ups still includes Theranos, blood analyzing laboratory, whose story did not descend from the main pages of the global leading media from 2014.

It first amazed the audience with its fantastic take-off and then with its collapse. One of the crucial parts of the success story of this start-up is its fundamental difference from the majority of the services produced in the Silicon Valley. Unlike the others, it was not a story of yet another beautiful gadget for communication or mobile app, but the story of the scientific idea which intended to conquer the world.

The great success stories in other scientific areas are now happening on occasional basis. However certain facts allow to predict that the situation is to change soon. One of such factors is growing interest among the big corporations to attract innovative solutions from outside to develop their businesses.

Given the accelerating pace of scientific and technological development of the world, the activities of internal R & D departments are often turn to be insufficient to ensure stable development of innovative business. Outsourcing of the R&D may become the efficient mechanism to stimulate the growth of the company. And high-tech start-up can certainly benefit from it.

Start-Up Technology for the Petro-Business

In December, 2016 world leading companies in the field of gas processing, petrochemicals and chemicals announced their intentions to enforce their R&D capacities by attracting start-ups. 3M, AkzoNobel, BASF, The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Henkel, Honeywell UOP, LG Chem, Linde, Sibur, Solvay and Technip together created a global stage for startups and investors.

“The petrochemicals industry can and must rely on the potential of open innovations to facilitate further inventions and implementation of new solutions in all major application areas, from construction and medicine to packaging and 3D printing. Thanks to the participation of international partners, IQ-CHem is now the largest global project within the industry which attracts innovative solutions and provides for their implementation into practice,” said Vasily Nomokonov, Executive Director of Sibur, a company which coordinates the project.

Positive Experience in Chemicals and Beyond

Some of the listed companies have already gained positive experience in working with start-ups which may have driven them to elaborate a systemic approach to attract innovative companies.

At the beginning of 2016, SIBUR and RRT Global start-up reached an agreement to build a pilot plant for isomerization based on RRT Global technologies in Sibur’s Industrial Park SIBUR “Tolyattisintez”. According to Oleg Giyazov, co-founder and CEO of RRT Global cooperation with a large corporation bring significant advantages to his company.

“By cooperation with Sibur we get a huge industrial experience that enables us to develop technologies and solutions better fitted to the market demand. This advantage is often not given due attention, but we, on the contrary, see significant opportunities in it. Currently, RRT Global cooperates with several companies around the world” he said.

Another petrochemical leader BASF enjoys successful cooperation with Genomatica start-up. In 2013 BASF started the production of 1,4-butanediol based on renewable feedstock (renewable BDO) using Genomatica’s patented process and in 2015 the license was expanded to the Asian market.

Unlike traditional forms of cooperation between a start-up and a venture capitalist, a cooperation between start-up and a relevant corporation allows to minimize the risks associated with investing in a potentially promising idea where the key word is “potential” (but not “guaranteed”). While delivering services in the same field as the start-up the corporation gets an opportunity to more effectively and accurately estimate the market value of an innovative idea and to support its implementation.

Structural Changes Ahead: Outlines of A Coming Market

In the short term prospective, possibly in 2017, the global start-up market will face structural changes – both in terms of start-ups professional orientation and of funding mechanism. In the future science-based start-ups will dominate the market and will change our lives at a deeper level than the way of sending a text message or searching the restaurant for an evening meal. To be more concise this is already happening in the pharmaceutical industry, and the other scientific areas are to follow.


About the Author

This article was written by Dominik Stephan of Process Worldwide. See more.

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Callum Connects

Norman Tien, Founder of Neuromath and Early Math Matters



From a young age, Norman Tien, found his passion helping students as a math tutor and went on to translate that into a successful business.

What’s your story?
From the age of 14, I knew I would be in business for myself and started designing my company logo.

Growing up in a poor family, I worked part time while I was in school. That’s when I started tutoring and realised I had a gift to help students “see” mathematics. I delivered good results, and my students started to love math as well.

A turning point was when I was down with dengue fever and I realised I had to grow my business to the next level. I started a learning centre and that was the beginning of Neuromath. The initial years were tough as costs went up while my personal income took a dive. I almost gave up, but I pushed through.

Today, we have 3 specialty math enrichment centres managed and delivered by my dedicated team of teachers.

What excites you most about your industry?
“How to win” has always influenced how I position myself in the industry. I researched the psychology of learning, why some students are so naturally good at math, while others struggled. I managed to find the connection, and have always sought out niches to position myself so I can win.

In the beginning, I fused academic delivery with psychology to differentiate my services. Now I have a good team of teachers fully equipped with a psychological skillset.

In the next evolution of our business, we will incorporate technology into education in order to customise each student’s learning experience based on his or her needs.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and educated in Singapore. One key driver why I started a business was, as a youth, I witnessed how my dad struggled daily as a taxi driver trying to make ends meet.

That said, I am very blessed to be in Singapore and to be given the right education. I see this as a very important factor to my success today.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore – well, for one, most of my businesses are here. Singapore is convenient for business and is very well governed. There are rules and systems that make the entire entrepreneurial journey more secure here. One big plus is the location: Singapore is a hub that allows us to connect to the world.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
船到桥头自然直 –
There is a Chinese saying that when a boat goes near the pier, it will automatically align itself (with the current). It means we don’t have to worry too much, that things will take care of themselves.

A mentor once challenged me: “But who can guarantee you can even reach the pier?”

It is such a highly competitive world we are in, who can guarantee success? This is the ONE question that has been etched in my mind for decades. The Chinese saying always comes to mind when I am positioning, designing and strategizing for my business.

Who inspires you?
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew – The fact that he started ruling the country just like a startup. With limited resources, he was able to find a strong positioning to differentiate his country from the rest of the of Asia. With hardwork and proper planning, he transformed Singapore from a fishing village to a prominent financial hub in Asia.

Because Mr. Lee Kuan Yew positioned Singapore so well, government owned companies, such as Singapore Airlines, have emerged as the best in the world.

His story inspires me, spurs me to understand that success is not by chance but by design – every little step, all the strategies are all planned out. Not at all by chance.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
My business coach, Marshall Thurber, shared with me the power of the “Trim Tab” – a small part of the rudder system in a ship. This Trim Tab, despite its small size, is able to influence the entire ship’s direction by turning it.

This metaphor helped me see that a man can influence the entire world if the right effort is applied. We are now living in an entirely new world, the way we commute with an app on the phone – that’s the power of the Trim Tab at work.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would embark on the same journey but I would seek a mentor at a very early age.

I have been through many hard knocks along the way, and I definitely could have shortened the learning curve if I had a mentor to advise me on the many aspects of entrepreneurship.

How do you unwind?
Driving down long highways helps me unwind, that’s when I let my mind relax and wander.

I love long distance driving and riding. My wife gave me a Harley Davidson Tourer for my 50th birthday and we intend to embark on riding holidays together in Asia.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Hong Kong – I love the fast pace and the vibrance of the city. I love the cars there and it’s a very unique and exciting experience for me. And of course, I love the food there too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
One Minute Millionaire – this book highlights the mindset of an individual that is the key determinant for success in whatever we embark on. As long as we know we have a very strong reason why we need to do it, we can do it!

Shameless plug for your business:
I am the CEO and Founder of 2 Math enrichment brands:
Neuromath is a Specialist Math Learning Centre that helps students from Primary 1 to Junior College, empowering them with strategies, skills and a strong desire to learn and problem solve. We use technology to train students to avoid careless mistakes reclaiming 30 marks or more in Math exams and achieve their full potential in math.

Early Math Matters is a premier Mathematics and Cognitive Development enrichment centre for preschool children aged 3-6 years old. Through purposeful play and our renowned EMM approach, we help learners build a strong foundation for problem solving at an early age, and instil in them a passion & love for math that will stay with them for life.

We are actively seeking passionate teachers, entrepreneurs and investors who are keen to grow the education business with us.

How can people connect with you?
I speak regularly at workshops for schools, parents and platforms demonstrating the use of technology for peak performance in education.

Do contact me at

Alternatively, you can connect with me:

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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