The Rise of Neurotech

I started pursuing a curiosity about consciousness and brain disease about four years ago, driven by my father’s Alzheimers disease. With that condition consciousness seems to slowly fade away. It is one of the hardest diseases to treat and there is no cure despite decades of research and trials.

As I chased my curiosity, I also noticed a number of entrepreneurs and small number of investors interested in the category. Four years ago, it was mostly large companies and billionaires funding R&D efforts picking up where DARPA had started. It is only in the last few years that it feels like there are more investable startups in the category. There are many small companies and an increasing number of entrepreneurs in the category. Earlier this year, CB Insights published a list of a few.

Most people may not know there are products available today that can change your brain state.  These products can make you more active, less depressed, more energetic, more calm, or more successful at learning. In the lab are technologies that move human brains to deep states of meditation, could help cure ADHD and clinical depression, and restore motion to paraplegics. Today these advanced products are used in carefully controlled circumstances with informed consent by the patient. In the near future, they will be available through a prescription or perhaps just delivered overnight via Amazon.

The great promise of this technology is that we could cure or help alleviate major diseases of the brain, mind, and nervous system. Depression, ADHD, PTSD, addictions, and eating disorders might be one day be conquered in the same way we have dealt with diseases of the body like the flu, infections, tuberculosis, ulcers, and measles. There might also be ways to alleviate the suffering of diseases that degrade the brain like Parkinsons, ALS, Alzheimers and dementia.

Further in the misty future, proponents see breaking free of the bounds set by our homo sapien brains by expanding memories, processing capacity and ability to communicate with one another. While interesting, I find those ideas rather dull and uninspired. Why would I want to do something with my brain that a machine can do better? Truly breakthrough: perhaps we can expand our empathy toward one another if we can truly experience what it is like to experience another’s state of mind. That is something no machine will be able to do and in the process will amplify our own humanity. There is an interesting discussion on this topic here (at minute 34) by former DARPA director Arati Prabhakar interviewed by John Markoff.

Today, there are generally two categories of commercial neurotech products. The FDA approval process cleaves the market. On one side are devices and procedures that go through clinical testing, can make medical claims, and are typically paid for by insurance at a high price point. On the other side is the wild west of consumer devices. They are limited in their medical claims and are sensitive to price point. You can find devices that will claim to help you with everything from meditation to weight loss. Some, despite the FDA restriction, hint at claims to alleviate symptoms of Alzheimers and other disease.

I’ve only made one investment in the category so far (Open Water), but looking at more. I’m part of a group of angels are collaborating on the topic. We call ourselves the “Braingels.” It is possible this small investment category will be an important one and I’m enjoying combining my curiosity with my professional interest in entrepreneurship and investing.

Photo credit:  Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash