Neurotech Leaders Forum Participants Discuss New Funding Opportunities

by Jennifer French, senior editor

About 100 neurotechnology industry executives, entrepreneurs, and investors attended the 2016 Neurotech Leaders Forum, held in San Francisco, CA earlier this month. The two day-event, now in its 16th year, was produced by Neurotech Reports, the publisher of this newsletter.

Doug Weber from DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office delivered the keynote address on day one. The programs he manages are focused on replacing, healing, and enhancing physiology through neurotechnology. “As one of the smallest agencies in the federal government, DARPA focuses on projects that are revolutionary not evolutionary,” he said. BTO’s portfolio is segmented into areas of sensory and motor functions (HAPTIX), health physiology (ElectRx), learning and memory (RAM and TNT), and behaviors (SUBNETS). Weber provided an update on the various new programs and reviewed the progress of the HAPTIX program. It began in February 2015 with the vision of the Luke arm for advanced prosthetics. The latest advancement is the restoration of sensation in upper extremity prosthetics.

The two other programs managed by Weber are ElectRx and TNT. The former began last year and was sparked by the work of Kevin Tracey on modulating physiological functions. The thrusts of this program are focusing on identifying nerve targets and new modulating technologies for a closed-loop feedback system, such as optogenetics, ultrasound, and magnetic nanoparticles. The Targeted Neuroplasticity Training program focuses on strengthening neural networks using peripheral nerve stimulation to improve cognitive skills. The program is set to begin in December.

The keynote speaker on day two was Adam Roth from the newly formed GSK/Verily joint venture Galvani Bioelectronics. Roth highlighted investment targets and the new organization’s structure. The new venture will draw on the biological core capabilities of GSK and the engineering skills of Google’s Verily Life Sciences unit. The targets for development will remain with the autonomic system with a focus on smart closed-loop technologies, laparoscopic injectables, and sensing wearables. Galvani approaches their funding mechanisms in a variety of ways; through exploratory research grants, direct research collaborations, and innovation challenges much like the X-prize format.

Another funding topic, discussed by Nick Langhals, was the NIH Small Business and Translation program. Kevin Wasserstein described his innovative incubator and translation program in the state of Ohio. Imran Eba of Action Potential Venture Capital and Howard Leonhardt of Cal-X Crowdfund Connect also offered funding advice to neurotech entrepreneurs. The collective advice for startups in the neurotech space; complete patient trials for proof of concept, get to the “kill questions” quickly, and consumer wearables is a great technology for crowdfunding.

Tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson from a new firm called Kernel discussed his $100 million personal investment focused on improving human intelligence. Kernel has licensed Ted Berger’s work on hippocampal prostheses at USC, but Johnson plans to build new neural interfaces for sensing and stimulating. “This is a moonshot for me personally,” he said.

The two rounds of presentations from the entrepreneur panels is always a highlight of the Neurotech Leaders Forum. This year offered a mix of new startups and small organizations primed for expansion. Milton Morris of NeuSpera Medical highlighted the new mid-field powering and miniaturized injectable neuromodulation technology. Roy Katz of BlueWind Medical described the firm’s tibial nerve microstimulation device for the treatment of OAB, peripheral nerve pain, and eventually fecal incontinence and sexual dysfunction. Brian Blischak from Nexeon MedSystems detailed his firm’s plans to revolutionize the invasive process of DBS with their new recordings to guide lead placement, closed-loop adaptive stimulation, and sensing recordings presented.

Jeff Hendricks of Biotectix, a University of Michigan spinoff, explained that his firm seeks to change electrode design with the use of conducting polymers, Amplicoat and Tecticoat. Chris Czura from Sanguistat Inc. described his company’s novel neural tourniquet that uses vagus nerve stimulation to control bleeding. Initial targets are acute bleeding from surgery, post-partum and trauma, and also chronic bleeding from disorders like hemophilia.

Panel discussions included recent technology innovations in the emerging neurostimulation sector. Joe Pancrazio from the University of Texas, Dallas highlighted his institution’s developments using new materials, smart polymers, and dynamic systems to drive implantable technologies to be more compatible with the harsh conditions with the body. Heather Dunn from Cirtec emphasized design trends in the neurotech device market: small, efficient, and minimally invasive stimulation systems will prevail, she said.

Mark Chamberlain from the Alfred Mann Foundation discussed new developments in neurorehabilitation using technology derived from the original BION stimulator. AMF is using peripheral nerve stimulation and sensing to restore function and sensation for upper limb prosthetic users. Frank McEachern of MicroTransponder described his firm’s upper extremity rehabilitation system for stroke. The team at the Cleveland FES Center is using contralateral stimulation for functional hand rehabilitation. The question still remains how to adapt the marketing and sales models of the neurotechnology world to appeal to rehabilitation professionals. One distinct strategy voiced by the panel was in the design of the clinical and user interfaces.

A session on brain sensing featured the latest developments at Battelle using BCIs to restore hand function with external stimulation. Marcus Gerhardt from Blackrock Microsystems described his firm’s new components in stimulating and sensing controls and wireless brain systems. Steve Miller from the Platypus Institute described his efforts to enhance cognitive learning that harnesses neuroplasticity.

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