By LAURA LOREK
Publisher of Silicon Hills News
Imagine a nickel-sized device implanted in the brain to help treat chronic and severe mental disorders like schizophrenia, which affect how a person thinks, feels and behaves.
It’s not science fiction but a real device that is being developed in Austin.
The medical device is the brainchild of Paradromics, a pioneering startup developing a “modem for the brain.” And it recently moved its operations, staffed with 24 employees, many with PhDs, from San Jose, California to Austin.
“We are creating an implantable device that exchanges data between a brain and a computer,” said Matt Angle, Paradromics’ F
With Paradromics’ technology, a lot of medical problems can be reframed as data problems, Angle said. For example, a person who is blind does not have visual data coming into the brain, he said. Paradromics’ neuro-prosthetic device uses ultra-high broadband communication links with the brain with the goal of restoring lost functionality like eyesight.
Angle began working on Paradromics core technology while doing post-graduate work at Stanford University. He previously received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Carnegie Mellon University and his PhD from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
While at Stanford, Angle studied and developed neural recording technologies and he and his collaborators invented a new, powerful way of interfacing with the brain. He founded Paradromics three years ago to take his device to market. And since then, Paradromics has raised $7 million in funding from Venture Capital firms and received an $18 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Paradromics’ device is currently in preclinical development. It expects to enter human clinical trials in 2021 or 2022, Angle said. Before it becomes available to all patients, it must undergo the rigorous process of Food and Drug Administration approval, and the company anticipates that path should take four to seven years.
Eventually, Paradromics’ technology could potentially help with treating diseases like ALS which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease or addiction, and related mental illness disrupting a massive $100 billion pharmaceutical industry.
For ALS patients, Paradromics’ device would restore the person’s ability to communicate through recording data from parts of the brain and transmitting it, thus allowing a person to type at the speed of thought or even to speak.
That kind of big thinking and tackling of huge problems led the Wall Street Journal in January to name Paradromics as one of a handful of companies developing the next big thing in technology akin to changing everyone’s life like the smartphone. Magic Leap, a company with an Austin-based research and development lab, also made the list.
“Everyone appreciates the technology we’re building,” Angle said. Paradromics is essentially pioneering a new industry in Austin. It left Silicon Valley for the Silicon Hills because Austin has smart people and it is way cheaper to operate here and it’s a great place to live and it has an innovative culture.
“A large part is the quality of life,” Angle said. “Austin has a lot of the things the Bay area has to offer, but for a fraction of the price.”
Austin has talented people and great universities like the University of Texas, Texas A&M. It also has a good startup ecosystem and good technical talent. And the cost of living is much lower. Getting high quality employees to work on a startup is much easier in Austin with lower housing prices than Silicon Valley.
“People basically come from all over the world to work with us,” Angle said. “The mission really resonates with people. We are working with a team of people that care about this.”
“There are no downsides to Austin,” Angle said. Except maybe traffic on Mopac as the company is headquartered in the Arboretum area.
Paradromics’ data come in the form of recording neural activity. Its system can harvest 30 Gigabytes per second of data
“It’s a really interesting time to be alive,”, Angle says. Delivering data as medicine will be the century’s next great leap in healthcare.
Other startups working on neuro implants include Neuralink, a company that is supported by Elon Musk. Based in San Francisco, the company is “developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers,” according to its website.
The tremendous advances in computing power, speed, and size have made it possible for Paradromics to do its research and development. It’s the beneficiary of Moore’s Law which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every 18 months.
On one side, Paradromics’ nickel-sized device, the Neural Input-Output Bus, called NIOB, looks like a hairbrush with about 50,000 microwires that is modular, allowing for recording and stimulating up to 1 million neurons. The current state of the art in brain-machine interfaces (The Utah Array) records from approximately 100 neurons. The Utah Array is a neural prosthetic from Blackrock Microsystems, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Everything that we do outside of the body is just turn key engineering,” Angle said.
On the software side, Paradromics is using machine learning algorithms that were invented by other companies and other academic groups for the kinds of things Facebook and Google use them for.
“We can happily adapt those tools and use them for our own purposes,” Angle said.
The same machine learning that allows people to recognize pictures of cats on the Internet, can be deployed by Paradromics to provide data to the brain. Eventually Paradromics technology will allow doctors to restore brain functions for people suffering from schizophrenia.
“It’s not today but it will definitely be happening sooner than you’d think,” Angle said.
And Paradromics goal is to work with payers or insurance companies, healthcare providers and Medicaid to make sure people can get the device and that they don’t have to pay huge sums of money out of pocket.
“For us to win, it has to be a device that can be reimbursed through insurance,” Angle said. Like how being prescribed a cochlear implant or pacemaker works today.
A team at Paradromics takes ethics very seriously and is working on an ethical statement about how the technology can be used, according to a company spokesman. It expects to publish that statement in the next few months on their website, he said.