IPO Corner: The Brain-Computer Interface

It was recently announced that researchers have concluded a lengthy study around the safety of what’s called implanted brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). This study, which is much less scary than it sounds (we promise), analyzed safety data spanning a whopping seventeen years… and what they found was monumental, even if it doesn’t seem like it right off the bat.

They found that there was a really low rate of things going wrong, and these findings essentially give the go-ahead for further evaluation of these technologies. Most specifically, to see what kinds of problems we can solve for those who have lost neurologic function in some way. It’s looking a lot like we have figured out a way to implant devices into the brain to fight loss of motor function… for starters.

We’ve seen plenty written about these technologies that make them sound incredibly dangerous, and a bit scary even. We wanted to know how the technology worked, to see if it really was something to be concerned about. What we found was that BCIs are a lot less Robocop, and a lot more grounded than we’d been led to believe. As it turns out, what makes them potentially dangerous is that they touch the brain, nothing more.

Basically, doctors take this little piece of equipment called a “Utah Array”, which looks like a tiny contact lens, and they place it on a piece of the brain called the motor cortex. Once that’s done, it can detect the signals that are being sent through that part of the brain, which controls the movements of the body. Since our brains are just living computers, actual computers can easily translate these signals into movements.

Deals To Watch

We were thrilled that we didn’t need to be worried about getting turned into a cyborg… on one hand. On the other, it kind of killed our science fiction fantasies of the technology. That out of the way, we were free to turn our attention back to cold, hard reality and see what these brain-computer interfaces were possible of becoming, to see if they would truly be something we see used in therapies.

For instance, imagine a world where thoughts could send a text message to your wife, play your Xbox for you from your chair at work in your home office, or where you could answer your emails with your mind while you make your coffee in the morning. Or, just to be a bit more practical, what if we could give the lives of paralyzed persons back to them in some meaningful capacity, or lessen the neurological impacts of sicknesses like Coronavirus?

These are plausible scenarios that we will see play out, you can count on it. One day, maybe before you know it, we’ll be able to turn thoughts about movement into physical action… assistive devices will be controlled with the mind, instead of crude tools, and we’ll finally move toward freeing those with differently abled bodies from some of the restrictions of the physical world. And we can do it long-term, and can really push the limits of what we’re capable of if we continue to nail it in terms of safety.

One such company working to make these fantasies a reality is Synchron, an endovascular brain computer interface (BCI) company. Over the last few years, they’ve been granted several designations by the FDA for their work, including Breakthrough Device in August of 2020 and Investigational Device Exemption in July 2021. The company, which has been developing a BCI platform to help patients avoid brain surgery, was able to accomplish its first implant in July of 2022.

The company recently raised additional funds via Series C funding, bringing their total amount raised since inception to $145 million. Contributors included names such as Bezos Expeditions, Reliance Digital Health Limited, Gates Frontier, NeuroTechnology Investors, Forepont Capital Partners, and many others. For all the big words and fancy terms, this technology is aiming to turn thoughts into text, and do it with a simple, minimally invasive procedure.

The Human Stories

In our research, we found that, the more we looked into it, the more human the stories around this technology became. For instance, just last spring, a man who has been trapped inside his own body due to the final stages of a disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was able to talk to his son again using a brain implant. We know it tugged on our heartstrings. Through this technology, a man was able to connect with his son, and the story is fascinating.

Using surgically placed electrodes, the man could “select” letters and form sentences using only his thoughts. It makes sense, like we mentioned, because the brain is simply a biological computer. So, for another computer, interpreting these signals, regardless of the source, is simply a day at the office. Either way, the nerves that ALS had destroyed for this man were circumvented, and he was able to learn a new way to communicate. He spelled out the words “I love my cool son.”

We’re seeing an increasing focus on the neurological issues arising from the circumstances of the last few years, so it wouldn’t surprise us at all if the new trend is a healthy brain. It seems that, maybe, caring about your brain and body may be coming back in vogue again in general. Also… we are most certainly seeing people hunt alternatives to medications and established treatments. Will BCIs become commonplace? Maybe. Come back next week, we’ll have more from the forefront of all things IPO.