Startups that “learn” ideas get off the bottom and appeal to investments
- November 20, 2022
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In the race for the development of sensors capable of transforming thoughts into action, Synchron is ahead of Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a sector that attracts more and more investments and will move billions of dollars
Appointed as the future of communication by the English physicist Stephen Hawking, until very recently, brain-computer interfaces (BCI) were restricted to the imaginary of science fiction.
Thanks, however, to advances in knowledge about brain functioning and the improvement of artificial intelligence and data analysis tools, businesses around neurotechnology are beginning to gain traction.
Globally, devices capable of transforming thought into action move US$ 1.74 billion, according to the American consultancy Grand View Research. By 2030, they should reach US$ 6.18 billion, at an annual growth rate of 17.2%.
Investor appetite for brain implants has also increased. Last year, according to PitchBook, investments in the sector grew by almost 60% compared to 2020. They went from US$ 194.35 million to US$ 467 million. In 2019, they did not reach US$ 135 million.
Neurotech startups caught the attention of venture capital with Elon Musk’s entry into the game. In 2016, the owner of Tesla and SpaceX founded Neuralink. Since then, the South African billionaire’s BCI company has raised $373 million from heavyweights like Founders Fund and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman.
But, to Musk’s frustration, the industry’s heaviest checks didn’t secure his lead in the brain-machine interface race. Without approval from regulatory agencies for testing on humans, Neuralink’s experiments remain restricted to Gertrude the pig and the Pager monkey, as the company’s guinea pigs are called.
First place goes to Synchron, a startup from New York, also launched in 2016 by neurosurgeon Thomas Oxley. With a fifth of the staff (60 employees) and just over a sixth of the money ($70 million) raised by Neuralink, the Brooklyn company is far ahead of Musk’s company.
About four months ago, with the approval of the US government, the Synchron gadget was implanted, for the first time, in an American patient. Carrier of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the man, whose identity has not been revealed, has lost the movement of his hands, arms and legs and has difficulty speaking.
Using only the power of thought, he was able to have a written conversation with his caregiver via WhatsApp and buy medication online. Five other people in Australia with similar problems have also received Stentrode since 2020.
The least invasive of all BCI technologies, Synchron’s system does not require surgery – giving the startup a huge advantage over the competition, both from a patient safety standpoint and technology cost.
A tiny platinum tube, traditionally used to clear arteries and veins and known as a stent, reaches the main blood vessels of the brain through a small incision in the volunteer’s jugular vein.
Attached to the patient’s chest, a bluetooth transmitter, similar to a pacemaker, transmits nerve impulses from the brain’s primary motor cortex, responsible for voluntary movements, to the computer and the machine decodes them, converting thoughts into action.
At a cost of $30,000 to $50,000, with Stentrode, patients can communicate via text – at a speed of 20 words per minute.
Precisely because it dispenses with the use of sensors directly in the brain, in general, the results obtained by Synchron, so far, tend to be less accurate than brain implants. But even so, the New York company’s device achieves quite satisfactory results, enough to make the product minimally viable, according to industry analysts.
There are still, however, many challenges to be overcome so that the technique can be used on a large scale. In addition to programming the computer to interpret brain commands, scientists need to train patients so that their thoughts follow a pattern.
Even if we use the same neural pathways to type a word into the computer or feel a certain emotion, this process is never exactly the same between two people. Furthermore, there is a vast field to be discovered.
The Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas is working with iota Biosciences, born in the laboratories of the University of California, Berkeley, in the development of brain sensors the size of a grain of sand.
Depending on the enthusiasm of neurotechnology entrepreneurs and the increasingly voracious appetite of investors for BCI systems, soon the brain-machine interface should gain scale.