When Jeff Stibel was a grad student at the Department of Neuroscience at Brown University, he was fascinated by the profs and fellow students who were working on a project called BrainGate. It aimed to link the neurons of the human brain directly to a computer, so that paralyzed individuals could control a computer and communicate better -- just by thinking. (Eventually, quadriplegics might even be able to control robotic arms with their thoughts.)
But the technology, which was quickly licensed to a start-up called CyberKinetics Neurotechnology Systems, always seemed to Stibel like more of a long-term research project. "It just felt too early to me to try to commercialize it," he says.
Stibel was right. He left Brown to start Simpli.com, a service that analyzed user behavior on the Internet -- and which was acquired by NetZero in 2000 for about $23 million. CyberKinetics raised more than $40 million, went public through a reverse-merger, acquired another small med-tech company, but was unable to keep funding its activities. Though its early human implants were celebrated by Wired Magazine, it never got a product approved by the FDA and into the market. In late 2008 and early 2009, CEO Tim Surgenor sold off all its assets.
One of the buyers was Jeff Stibel, now president of the publicly-traded Internet marketing company Web.com. He's planning to invest millions of his own money to start The BrainGate Company, which will be based in Boston and Los Angeles.
I spoke with Stibel yesterday to find out about his plans, in advance of the launch of the new company's official Web site, which happens later this week.
Stibel says he paid
several million dollars less than a million dollars earlier this year to buy the BrainGate trademark, the CyberKinetics.com domain, and most importantly, the company's intellectual property related to the BrainGate system, which includes more than 30 patents. (Correction: Stibel e-mailed to clarify the amount.)
He doesn't plan to do any development work on the system's hardware -- the physical connection between the brain and the computer. (Some of that work is being done by Utah-based Blackrock Microsystems, run by a group of former CyberKinetics employees and professor Florian Solzbacher of the University of Utah.) Instead, The BrainGate Company will focus on improving the software. "Understanding the language of neurons and transferring that to a computer is not easy," Stibel says, and with early CyberKinetics systems, it didn't always work reliably. "We want to make the core software strong," and support the academic researchers at places like Brown, Mass General, and Stanford who will prove, over time, the benefits and capabilities of the system. Stibel says he plans to offer researchers free use of "all our technology," but they'll have to fund their clinical trials with grants that they obtain themselves.
Stibel (pictured at left) says that he's the largest shareholder of the new venture, but that the new backers include other private investors (he declined to name names.) There are seven people now working on the new company -- though none full-time yet, and none who were employees of CyberKinetics, Stibel says. Professor John Donoghue, the key researcher at Brown, who was on the board of CyberKinetics, also isn't actively involved. (He has lassoed grants to fund his own work on a second-generation system called BrainGate2.
One complication is that there are now two for-profit entities, Blackwave and The BrainGate Company, that will be working with the small community of academic researchers who are trying to make the brain-computer interface a reality. The revenue potential seems quite small -- at least until the technology wins FDA approval and can be sold in the marketplace.
But Stibel seems to have patience -- and the money necessary to fund BrainGate for a while. "We know we're still too early with this technology," he says, "but we're structuring the company in a certain way based on that knowledge." He says he paid a couple million dollars for the BrainGate assets -- and will invest more than that in cultivating the new company.
He adds, "Our intention is to be very different than CyberKinetics -- not the least of which is, we'd rather not fail."
(An aside: When Stibel first got in touch with me, I wasn't aware of his acquisition of the BrainGate assets, but rather thought he was calling to plug a book he wrote, which is coming out next month. It's called Wired for Thought: How the Brain is Shaping the Future of the Internet, and it is being published Harvard Business School Press. Clearly he is a guy who can multi-task...)
About Scott Kirsner
Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
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