Neuralink competitor raises US$20mil for brain implants

A competitor to Elon Musk’s Neuralink, Paradromics raised RM84.49mil, getting it on track to introduce a new generation of powerful and tiny electrodes to the human brain. — AP Photo

A competitor to Elon Musk’s Neuralink said it raised US$20mil (RM84.49mil), enough to get it on track to introduce a new generation of powerful and tiny electrodes to the human brain.

Paradromics Inc., founded in 2015 about a year ahead of Neuralink, is building brain-computer interfaces that could help people with disorders ranging from paralysis to speech impediments.

"Once you start to realize that the best way to describe the brain is through data, you start to reframe a lot of classically hard-to-treat conditions,” said Matt Angle, chief executive officer of Paradromics. "What the brain really is-it’s a data system.”

For example, where a biological approach to blindness might be to attempt to regrow the retina, his approach would be to get visual data to the right part of the brain, even if it means using a computer.

The funding will help Paradromics hone its hardware, Connexus, tiny 8-millimetre square modules that get implanted under the skull, into the surface of the brain cortex. Microwires cover the modules, penetrating an additional 1.5 millimetre into the cortex, and translate the brain’s bioelectric signals into digital ones that can be understood by a computer, and vice versa.

The modules transmit data to and from a fifth hub module planted in the skull, which in turn transmits the data to a sixth module just under the skin of the chest, and then wirelessly to a nearby computer, small enough to clip onto a wheelchair.

In that manner, the brain’s activity can be translated into an actionable command, such as the movement of a computer cursor. It’s still early days for the system, but so far, a predecessor technology has been tested successfully on sheep.

Paradromics, like other companies in its field, said it stays in touch with regulators to help smooth the process of applying for experimental use in humans. But first, it needs to fine-tune its hardware. Angle expects the devices to be ready to start the application process next year.

Paradromics’ technology builds on decades of research and work by initiatives such as BrainGate, and is one several companies in the field. So far this year, brain-machine interface startups have raised US$132.8mil (RM582.98mil), according to PitchBook.

That's already one-third more than the sector raised in all of last year, and by far the most since 2017, a year when Neuralink raised US$107mil (RM452.02mil).

Paradromics said one of its advantages comes from the number of electrodes-400-that sit on each of its modules, more than on analogous devices. That will improve the quality and quantity of the data they can handle, the startup said.

"People are using the devices they have access to right now, and trying to push the envelope,” said Amy Kruse, a former program manager for neuroscience at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who is now a partner at Prime Movers Lab, which led the investment.

"How much data you can get out? Where Paradromics is headed, and in particular around those interfaces, is around high-bandwidth, high-throughput devices.”

Of course, any such device is risky, and brain surgery is an inherently fraught process. That said, several hundred thousand people globally already have devices implanted in their skulls, mostly to control seizures and tremors.

Kruse said Musk’s interest in neuroscience and in particular the work at Neuralink-which last year showed off pigs with devices implanted in their brains-has encouraged more venture capitalists to look at the field of brain-computer interfaces.

"What Elon has done, he’s normalised neurotech for a group of investors that otherwise wouldn’t have touched it,” Angle said.

Neuralink has signaled it will boost its presence in Austin, Paradromics’ home turf. But Angle said he’s not worried, and describes his relationship with Musk’s company as "collegial.”

In fact, Angle believes having two major brain-computer interface, or BCI, companies in close proximity will help establish the city as the center for similar start-ups.

"The markets in which we’re involved are hundreds of billions of dollars,” Angle said. "In the case of BCI, we don’t have enough BCI companies to service all of the possible use cases.”

The funding round includes participation from Westcott Investment Group, Dolby Family Ventures, Synergy Ventures and others. Prime Movers' Kruse has taken a board seat. – Bloomberg

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