Funding for Brain-Computer Interface Ventures
Published on August 28, 2020
Can following the money tell us about the interface between academic research and venture-funded companies in BCI. Is there a clear boundary at all? What does the 'funding lens' reveal, about who is moving the field forward? How far along are the new BCI companies compared with the incumbent neural interfaces?
Funding is a measure of potential, and occasionally a predictor of success. Regardless, tracking investment in brain-computer interfaces is a useful way to assess how the new generation of BCI developers stacks up. Interest in BCI has been growing, and we're likely to see a new wave of investments in 2020 and beyond. Here is the picture in August 2020, ahead of Neuralink's second big announcement.
At first glance, it seems like European companies get funded to do invasive medical applications and US companies work on consumer applications with the notable exceptions of Paradromics and Neuralink. This is probably not true. Many US research efforts towards invasive BCI — like 'Braingate', perhaps the most advanced BCI in human trials today — are structured as academic groups. Across the Atlantic, companies tend to spin off or license out technology developed in universities before human trials.
Companies in the Bay Area are highlighted as a separate group, because of the sheer number of BCI ventures headquartered there, and because these ventures have different levels of access to funding compared to those elsewhere in the US. However, that label may not be fully accurate. For example, Paradromics was started up in Silicon Valley and subsequently moved to Austin, Texas. Similarly, Emotiv started up in Australia and subsequently set up headquarters in San Francisco.
'Kernel' stands out in its own 'Research Devices' category. The company provides 'Neuroscience as a Service (NaaS) gives you on-demand access to our world-leading brain recording technology.', allowing clients to perform non-invasive neuroscience experiments remotely through it's 'Flow' and 'Flux' platforms.
But Kernel is not alone in catering to the research community. 'Blackrock, Ripple, TDT, and Plexon all produce products, components, and services for BCI research. These include lab electrophysiology equipment, FDA-cleared microelectrode arrays for human implantation, custom BCI development services, human BCI implanted arrays, including consulting services, and technology for optogenetic stimulation. These are privately owned, but with little information on funding available many seemed to have originated as spinoffs from university research groups. It seems that following the money does not always reveal where new technology is being developed. 'Neuropixels', a publicly funded research and engineering effort that developed a popular silicon CMOS digital neural probe, also deserves a mention in the 'research devices' category.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, neuroscience researchers will attest to the contribution of community-developed efforts like OpenBCI, who develop widely used open-source non-invasive BCI tools and Open Ephys, an organization that consolidates open-source software efforts into tools that are used by the likes of Neuralink and advocates for common open standards that move the field forward. These organizations are fundamental to moving BCI research forward, but not visible at all when you use the 'funding' lens to look at the field.
Even companies like Neuralink who purport to want to eventually build a consumer device, are building medical devices first. Let's narrow the focus to invasive neural interfaces for medical use and include some of the older neural interfaces that were conceptualized in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Technology that requires surgery to implant an interface that will stay in the body for years, stimulating or recording from the nervous system throughout its lifetime requires approval from regulators. This involves years of pre-clinical testing and clinical trials to demonstrate that the implants and the surgical procedure are safe. Developers of invasive neural interfaces follow a different path from developers of consumer devices.
The technology that the newer ventures like Paradromics are building may be light years ahead of the large sensing leads and relatively imprecise neural stimulators that are currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, heart failure or chronic pain. Their paths to commercialization, however, will depend strongly on the outcomes of their clinical trials. In this sense, they are closer to these incumbent medical device manufacturers, and to developers of motor, sensory, and visual neuroprosthetics. Hopefully, the newer generation of BCI devices will have shorter timelines before clinical use, with FDA announcing its support for BCI devices and putting out guidelines for their trials.
To shed more light on how these technologies are brought to life, it's useful to dig deeper into where the technology is developed and commercialized. All technology builds on previous discoveries. Some inventions are explicitly transferred from the research world to the commercial sphere through 'technology transfer agreements' or licenses. It's not unusual for the initial R&D to be done through a research consortium and handed over to a commercial entity who is responsible for bringing it to market. This can also be done through a 'spin-off' from a university.
For example, the Australian Federal Government awarded a $42 million grant to a research consortium called Bionic Vision Australia to develop bionic vision technology. The technology was later transferred to Bionic Vision Technologies, who went on to raise $18 million from private funders, presumably to further clinical trials and further development.
In the case of BCI, it appears that the 'wearables' or non-invasive consumer BCI products are mostly built in-house at tech companies. The medical neural interfaces or the 'implantables' have are more likely to be developed in a university lab and transferred or spun out for commercialization after a certain degree of success has been proven.
Public institutions are closely linked with neural interface research and development globally. More than 60% of the 36 neural interface companies either build directly on technology licensed from a university or receive public funding in the form of grants for research and clinical trials. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), the European Commission's Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) and the European FP-7 R&D programs have all been significant funders of BCI and continue to award grants to further the technology.
Another notable agency involved deeply in United States BCI development is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. More than half of invasive neural interface technology companies in the US are directly or indirectly funded by DARPA. The agency has taken an interest in BCI development for decades and continues to fund its development.
With the 'Elon Musk spotlight' that is currently on the field, brain-computer interfaces are likely to see an uptick in investor and researcher interest over the next few years. Hopefully, this means that new safe and more effective technology will come to market soon.
Exclusions and Omissions
This post does not include companies
- For whom funding information is not publicly available (Neurosity, Neurosky, Melomind, Neuro Device, MED-EL, Advanced Bionics — acquired by Sonova, Advanced Neuromodulation Systems — acquired by St Jude, Marsi Bionics and Bionic Sight)
- Large medical device manufacturers, where neural interfaces are not the sole business (Medtronic, St Jude, Sonova)
- Companies that are no longer in business (Retinal Implants AG)
- Wetware companies (Koniku, NETRI)
- All EEG headset manufacturers (too many to list)
- 31 Aug 2020: Added Neuropace funding USD 67M to chart 2
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