By Ashley Forbes
THE FIRST TIME Brian Harris ’11 met his future business partner, Owen McCarthy ’10, Harris was not dressed to impress.
It was the summer before Harris’ first year at the University of Maine and he was at home in West Enfield, Maine, waiting for a few brothers from Sigma Phi Epsilon to stop by. He had applied for a scholarship through the fraternity, which involved an interview, and he was anticipating a casual hang with some college guys.
McCarthy and the other brothers showed up in shirts and ties. Harris was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
The two laugh about this now, sitting in a conference room in the downtown Portland office of MedRhythms, the digital therapeutics company they co-founded in 2015. For both, brotherhood in SigEp, which has a mission of “building balanced men” through “sound mind and sound body” was a defining aspect of their UMaine experience and the values the fraternity emphasizes are some of the same they now stress in their business.
That business aims to bring the clinically proven benefits of musical stimulation to people with a range of neurologic injuries and diseases and it addresses a problem of scarcity: there aren’t enough music therapists in the world to treat the number of people who would benefit from such therapy. McCarthy and Harris, recognizing that problem, set out to change it.
But first, they had to get to know each other.
Friends from that first meeting, both McCarthy, who grew up in Patten, Maine, and Harris were first-generation college students. Both found themselves drawn to the excellence that SigEp inspired, and the type of person it seemed to attract, says McCarthy.
“You were surrounded by people who were leaders in organizations, and working hard at their academics, and trying to get better from a physically fit perspective,” said McCarthy. “It’s really hard to slack off amongst a group of motivated people. Coming from small-town Maine, I didn’t have the perspective of what really good looks like, but being able to see that in action — in so many different ways — helped to open up my mind and increase my aspirations.”
Harris is quick to echo this.
“A lot of organizations have ideals and values that they strive to live by, but it became clear very quickly that in SigEp, these were not just words on paper,” said Harris. “This was a lived culture that everybody in the organization was individually committed to, and committed to push others to do the same. I learned that some of the key to success was to surround yourself with people who are better than you. SigEp was a group of men who were very much better than me in a lot of different ways. It was a transformational experience.”
Both McCarthy and Harris wholly embraced the SigEp values and commitment to community service. Both served (in different years) as president of Student Government. McCarthy was a student ambassador for Team Maine, a group of students that supports the work of the university’s admissions office. Both were members of the Senior Skulls, the fourth-year honor society whose purpose is to “promote the values of friendship, obligation, academics, dignity, and the standards and traditions of the University of Maine.”
Academically, their paths diverged. Harris, a psychology major who minored in music, played in the Fighting Black Bears Marching Band, Pep Band, and other campus-based musical groups. McCarthy studied biomedical engineering (the major was then called biological engineering).
The concept of music as therapy was one Harris had brought with him to UMaine.
“I’d heard about it from my high school guidance counselor,” said Harris, who grew up playing music on a variety of different instruments. “I had no idea what it meant, but the idea of music to help people seemed great, and I knew that music performance and music education were not going to be the routes for me.”
What it meant, and what it would come to mean for both men, did not begin to crystallize until the years after college.
After graduation came Boston. McCarthy, who graduated a year ahead of Harris, accepted a sales role at a specialty chemicals company. Harris followed a year later to attend graduate school in music therapy at Lesley University. His two-year program finished in spring 2013, and he set his sights on a job at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where he had interned while in school. Spaulding had no musical therapy program at the time, but Harris was determined to change that.
“It’s affiliated with Harvard Medical School, it’s the number two rehab hospital in the country and one of the best rehab hospitals in the world,” said Harris. “I had been in the hospital treating patients as an intern for nine months, and the whole time I had this vision that I was going to work there. We were seeing great results from the therapy, and I knew what it would mean for the field if we could create a program there. I was hyperfocused on the idea that I needed to do this, and it needed to happen at Spaulding.”
The timing was fortuitous. Harris finished his master’s in music therapy in the spring of 2013. He was sharing an apartment with McCarthy and other roommates, and through- out his internship had been coming home with inspiring stories and videos from his therapy sessions.
“You can talk about the power of music in neuroscience and it’s powerful,” said Harris. “But when you see it? It’s life changing.”
McCarthy, who had left his job in preparation to attend Harvard Business School that fall, recognized his friend’s passion, was intrigued, and wanted to help. He spent the summer advising Harris on how to pitch the idea of a music therapy program to the executive team at Spaulding and working with him on a business plan for a private therapy practice in case the Spaulding job didn’t come through.
In the end, they got both.
Not only did Spaulding accept Harris’ proposal, allowing him to become the hospital’s first neurologic musical therapist fellow and to build Spaulding’s program from the ground up, but he also became the lead clinician at the private musical therapy practice he founded with McCarthy’s help.
Harris found himself doing double duty — seeing patients all day in the hospital, and then following up with other patients at night and on weekends. Often, his therapy clients were the same people to whom he had provided services at Spaulding. Harris’ treatments were helping to improve their conditions, and they didn’t want to stop.
This is when McCarthy and Harris knew they were on to something. They couldn’t expand the practice enough to meet demand — there simply weren’t enough therapists — and a grander vision to provide the proven
benefits of musical therapy to as many patients as possible was born.
What is MedRhythms?
Entrepreneurship had long been a fascination for McCarthy, who, the year after he graduated from college, had worked with Maine Business School and the Foster Center for Innovation to found the UMaine Business Challenge, an annual competition designed to support student entrepreneurs and help them realize their business dreams while contributing to the long-term growth of Maine’s economy. While at Harvard, he co-founded Voxel8, a multimaterial 3D printing company that is still operating and recently was acquired.
“I had decided that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial, start something, focus on a big mission,” said McCarthy. “I was thinking about what to do after school and considering a number of different opportunities. Brian was saying, ‘Every time a patient leaves Spaulding, they want more care, but I can’t replicate myself. How do we reach more people?’ And then we both just said ‘OK, let’s figure this out together.’”
What McCarthy and Harris set out to do was create a digital version of a music therapist that a patient could access any time. No appointments, no facilities, and very little special equipment. The trick was, it had to work as well as clinician-delivered neurologic music therapy.
“We would lock ourselves in rooms for days to create these huge decision trees that were the basis of the algorithms,” Harris said. “Literally, when a patient does this, do X, when a patient does Y, do Z. We covered the walls with those, and that was step one of the algorithm that we took to the engineers.”
At the root of it all is what Harris describes as a deeply held responsibility to help as many patients as possible improve their situations.
“When I treat people, I see how drastically impacted their lives are and how big the need is for them to recover,” said Harris. “Since the early days of my career, I’ve been preaching that music therapy through the lens of neuroscience should be standard of care. Yet there are only about 3,000 trained neurologic music therapists in the world, and it’s impossible for something to become standard of care when there are 3,000 people practicing it. So, we can’t just say it should be standard of care, we have to actually do something to make it happen.”
What that looks like today is a neat little package consisting of a sensor patients attach to their shoe, a handheld device programmed with MedRhythms software, and a set of blue- tooth-connected headphones. Everything comes pre-loaded, so all patients have to do is affix the sensor to their shoe, turn on the device, and start walking. The simplicity is critical for the patients MedRhythms serves because complex tech setup would be impractical for those recovering from neurologic injuries. As the patient walks, sensors on their shoes collect information about their gait, which in turn informs algorithms that select and deliver appropriate music.
This platform is based on extensive neuroscience research that shows that auditory rhythm can be used to directly target the human motor system to address walking deficits caused by neurologic injuries and diseases, including stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment, and aging.
This all hinges on a neurologic process known as “entrainment” — the auditory and motor systems of the brain are coupled due to an external rhythmic cue. Over time, entrainment can enhance neuroplasticity and cause neuroplastic changes that produce improved motor outcomes. Patients who use the therapy regularly should improve their walking and
reduce the risk of falls.
MedRhythms was incorporated on July 31, 2015, and it didn’t take McCarthy, the company’s president, and Harris, CEO, long to decide that they wanted to grow in Maine. (The private musical therapy practice that inspired the technology continues to operate in Boston and McCarthy and Harris consider it their R&D lab.) Organizing the technology took about a year and a half, the founders say, a deliberate process that helped them solidify their approach to developing MedRhythms as a medical device and pursuing the necessary regulatory approvals. Their return to Maine corresponded roughly with their first angel investment in 2017.
“We wanted to be here,” said Harris. “We wanted to help Maine’s economy and create jobs for Maine’s people. Most of all, we wanted to create a world-class organization that is the best at what it does — and the best anywhere, not just the best in Maine.” That has required input from many corners, yet ties to Maine and UMaine run deep.
Jean Hoffman, the Portland-based entrepreneur who founded, led, and eventually sold pet pharmaceutical company Putney, Inc. for $200 million, was an early advisor and remains on the MedRhythms board of directors to this day. An external advisory board of healthcare leaders, formed in the early days of the company, also has been indispensable, according to the founders. Experienced health care and life sciences executive Scott Wallace ‘86 is a member of that group and helped link McCarthy and Harris with a major pharmaceutical executive who now serves on their board of directors.
Four UMaine alumni are among MedRhythms’ 25 full-time employees, including head of engineering Brian Bousquet-Smith ’12, ’20G. The company has hosted Innovate for Maine Fellows as summer interns and, in McCarthy’s words, tries to “plug in as much as we can.”
McCarthy served as chair (2017-2019) and then vice chair (2019-2021) of the University of Maine Board of Visitors. Both men received the Alumni Association’s Rising Star Award in 2018, the same year they closed a Series A investment round worth $5.3 million.
Since then, they’ve raised $25 million in a Series B round that closed in July and announced a partnership with Universal Music Group (UMG) in September that will give MedRhythms access to the company’s massive and diverse catalog for use on the platform.
“Partnering with UMG is a milestone that affords us the opportunity to leverage patient-preferred music to provide top clinical outcomes and build a product that patients are excited to use,” said Harris.
McCarthy and Harris are a long way from the small-town Maine kids who met in the mid-2000s, but every experience along the way — those shared at UMaine and in the years since — has helped shape the mission of the company they are now growing with intention in Portland.
“We’ve been a mission-driven organization since day one,” said Harris. “What we get really excited about is the potential that we will have to make a global impact from the state of Maine on the lives of people living with neurologic disease and injury. Once we get our FDA approval, we will be the world’s first prescription music.”
MedRhythms’ digital therapeutic is currently being studied in a multi-site, randomized controlled trial with chronic stroke survivors at some of the top rehabilitation hospitals across the country. Once completed, the company
will be able to submit for FDA approval to treat that population, one that faces widespread walking deficits and lacks treatment options. Other clinical trials for different populations are underway, and the company expects results from some within the next year. FDA approval for their flagship product will mark a crucial commercialization milestone for the team.
“Our vision is that these products become standard of care,” said Harris. “That’s the reason that we started the company and the thing that we are chasing at all costs is the impact of having this accessible to everyone that needs it.”
For the co-founders, the impacts they have imagined — and the possibilities they can’t yet envision — serve as a powerful motivator.
“Digital therapeutics is a new field,” said McCarthy. “We’re talking about evidence-based, FDA-approved prescription software. If we can execute on that, we’ll be one of the leading companies that are changing the way medicine is delivered. What comes after that?”