Building Better Brains
When internet entrepreneur Bryan Johnson launched Kernel last year, he decided on a different approach from other neurotech firms. Rather than target a specific device for a specific disease, the company is more interested in building a broad technology platform that may prove useful in a number of applications down the road. “A multi-product approach staged over multiple years optimizes for expertise accumulation and technological and scientific breakthroughs,” Johnson said.
In keeping with this approach, Kernel recently announced it will acquire Kendall Research Systems, an MIT spinoff that has developed a suite of optogenetics tools for neuroscience researchers. KRS founder Christian Wentz previously cofounded Cerenova, Inc., an implantable neurological device spun-out from Mass General’s focused on stroke and TBI recovery. The company also brought on Adam Marblestone as chief strategy officer and optogenetics pioneer Ed Boyden as senior scientific advisor. Marblestone devised roadmaps for scalable brain mapping and for the integration of deep learning and neuroscience. He helped initiate the fields of molecular recording and optical connectomics,
In many ways, Kernel’s goals and strategies for commercializing neurotech remind us of an early Google, which seemed more intent on collecting data and building technology platforms than rushing a new product out the door. Johnson’s goals for Kernel are clearly more ambitious than just developing novel neurotech therapies. “I started Kernel with the specific intent of advancing human intelligence,” he told attendees at the 2016 Neurotech Leaders Forum, a few days after he announced his $100 million investment in Kernel. “The tools that will ameliorate neurological dysfunctions and degeneration that affect billions of people may also enable us to enhance our brains.” One of Kernel’s first collaborations was with Ted Berger at USC, who has pursued a decades-long goal of building a hippocampal prosthesis to aid people with memory disorders. Since our first visit with Berger in 2004 [NBR May04 p2], his team has made steady progress building VLSI chips that replicate some portion of memory formation.
Johnson may not be the only entrepreneur interested in broadening neurotech’s reach. A recent article in theverge.com reports that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has begun putting together a team to explore the possibilities of human augmentation. And Nexeon MedSystems CEO Will Rosellini is reportedly a proponent of transhumanism, which foresees the day when man and machine meld to form a new species.
It’s too early to say whether the neurotech industry will usher in a new form of humanity with expanded mental powers and enhanced brain architecture. But it will be exciting to watch what emerges from companies like Kernel in the years ahead.
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