Why you should care

All those hours in front of the Xbox aren’t for nothing. See, dad? Now they’re saving your life!

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When Cosmin Mihaiu should have been studying for the Romanian version of the SAT, he was instead killing mob bosses and committing an incalculable amount of virtual felonies. That is, on Grand Theft Auto IV. He used to play the video game from sundown to sunset, not exactly a schedule conducive to good grades, let alone staying awake in school. Pops, obviously, wasn’t pleased, says Mihaiu. But he might be eating his words now.

That’s because Mihaiu’s bloody Xbox forays might make him a millionaire. And in a field that might surprise you: physical therapy.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, consider that Mihaiu, now 25, is CEO of a company that creates games that patients can use to make their rehab — normally a torturously boring task — fun. Mihaiu wants to make getting better more than just tolerable. As with Mihaiu’s love affair with GTA, he wants everyone, from young patients with cerebral palsy to older folks exercising to prevent a fall, to get “addicted” to rehab. One game has patients doing squats in order to control a video bee in pursuit of pollen; another requires them to make swimming motions to power a submarine scouring the sea floor for artifacts. Developers can tailor a single game to help people with a variety of ailments. The gamer-turned-entrepreneur has cemented partnerships with some of Europe’s most prestigious hospitals and universities and secured multiple rounds of funding and even a TED fellowship. Not bad for someone who was admittedly “always mediocre in school.”

Portrait of Cosmin Mihaiu

Source Cosmin Mihaiu

When I caught up with Mihaiu via Skype, he looked nothing like the hermit gamer you might have imagined. Wearing a fashionable cardigan over a blue-striped collared shirt, he fit right into the London headquarters of MIRA Rehab, the company he and three college classmates founded. It’s an edgy and bustling co-working space that would give Airbnb a run for its money. While his colleagues remain in Romania, Mihaiu has been deployed to the front line of commercial Europe to wrangle partnerships and get MIRA Rehab’s games into the hands of real patients. While some professionals balked at the idea of working with a 20-something without experience in health care, others, like Emma Stanmore, a lecturer in nursing at the University of Manchester, took him on. “It’s about ability rather than age,” she says.

No matter how convincing he may be, Mihaiu may never be able to persuade certain patients to pick up the game controller. For one, it takes a level of technological know-how that some, particularly those over 65, don’t necessarily have. Then there’s the cost of a TV and an Xbox, which you need to hook up the motion-sensing Kinect device. And the competition may already have a leg up, since some companies are run by former physical therapists with field experience, something you won’t yet find on Mihaiu’s résumé. A PT background is “a big advantage,” says Sheryl Flynn, who naturally is both a physical therapist and the founder and CEO of MIRA Rehab rival Blue Marble Game Co.

Still, Mihaiu knows the patients’ pain — as in, the pain in the ass that is rehab. As a 7-year-old, he broke his arm after falling from a tree during an ill-fated game of hide-and-seek. Recovery was six weeks in a cast and six weeks of physical therapy, which was just as excruciating as the injury itself, he says. While brainstorming ideas for the renowned student tech competition Microsoft Imagine Cup, Mihaiu flashed back to that agony and channeled it into his project. It didn’t pick up first place, but it was enough for an invitation to the U.K.-based startup accelerator Healthbox, where MIRA Rehab instead picked up $73,000 in funding.

MIRA Rehab has come a long way, from being the youngest team at Healthbox — one that didn’t have enough money to fly out to London from Romania for an interview — to offering an impressive 14 games for sale. None of that surprises Mihaiu’s childhood friends, who remember him as “the serious one” who would sometimes skip nights out partying to write code, says Tudor Jude, a friend since fifth grade. And those are the very programming chops that have given MIRA Rehab an edge. There are other so-called exergame companies out there, but few can track progress like MIRA Rehab, says Stanmore. That means patients can play the games at home, and the software will keep their physicians informed of their progress.

Are you taking notes, parents? Let little Johnny play Call of Duty to his heart’s content — it might turn him into a CEO one day.

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