Synchron Series Khosla Venturesparkfiercebiotech: Psychiatrists have long known that people with paralyzing conditions can teach their brains to control complicated robotic devices, but conventional brain-computer interfaces can’t take full advantage of the patients’ motor skills. Synchron, a medicine-technology startup in Half Moon Bay, California, has developed a brain-computer interface (BCI) that circumvents this problem by using data from smartwatches and other nonmotorized sensors to detect subtle movements gently applied by the user’s neuroprosthetic device. The company has raised $40 million in Series B funding, led by Khosla Ventures.
Synchron’s chief technology officer, Wenzhao Jia, was studying brain-machine interfaces at Stanford University in 2010 when he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jia soon began using a more primitive BCI called BrainGate to move his computer mouse and control other computers. But he found it difficult to type.
“I had a hard time thinking of ways to write,” says Jia, who began developing a more advanced BCI as his ALS symptoms progressed, identifying sensors that could detect movements and coordinated muscle contractions. The system uses magnets implanted in the skull; concentric circles of magnets create directional fields outside the skull and within the head.
Jia and his colleagues developed a system that listens to the brain’s electrical activity as it interprets tiny postural movements. When it detects an abrupt, intentional movement, the system can choose to either inhibit or enhance a corresponding electromechanical signal sent to the computer. The process requires just a fraction of a second and works best when patients make quick or small movements with their muscles.
The startup began developing its technology in 2013, and has already had 70 clinical trials involving multiple sclerosis patients. “We’re now able to do real-time translation of more complex commands, such as walking, typing text, and even playing piano music. The translation happens in the background. It’s completely seamless. The user doesn’t need to think about it any more than he would think about breathing,” says Jia.
Tyromotion, a Swedish orthopedic robotics company, has also participated in clinical tests with the early version of the BCI system and plans to incorporate it into its hardware.
Synchron is now working with a number of medical device companies and researchers to use the technology as a way for patients with ALS, spinal cord injuries, and other debilitating conditions to live more comfortable and productive lives. The technology enables patients to communicate more freely and efficiently than with earlier technologies. “The ability to communicate freely and move around is the most basic human need,” Jia says.