Forest Neurotech Gets $14 Million

Forest Neurotech Gets $14 Million
Team: Forest co-founders, from left, Tyson Aflalo, Sumner Norman and Will Biederman.

This article has been revised.

Arts District-based Forest Neurotech LLC has found a new investment in its mission to develop minimally invasive neurotechnology implant devices. The nonprofit research organization is receiving $14 million of funding from Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google LLC.

Forest officially launched in October and was previously incubating under Convergent Research, which is a nonprofit and a venture creation studio. The $14 million will be donated as philanthropic financing to aid Forest’s continued research and its development of brain-computer interfaces. 

Forest was born out of research conducted at the California Institute of Technology. The nonprofit’s chief executive, Sumner Norman, co-founded it with Tyson Aflalo and Will Biederman, who serve as chief science officer and chief technology officer, respectively. In conjunction with its October launch, Forest announced a five-year co-development partnership with digital health company Butterfly Network Inc.

According to Norman, Forest’s ultrasound-based technology will allow the brain to be diagnosed and modulated in a minimally invasive manner. The devices Forest is developing, called brain-computer interfaces, are composed of an implant that’s powered by ultrasound chip technology from Butterfly Network. Norman said that the technology could be used to diagnose, modulate and potentially treat conditions including seizure disorders, tumors and neurogenerative diseases.

“One of the main reasons that we decided to structure this as a nonprofit research organization was to make sure that we developed a platform technology in a way that enabled researchers and clinicians to test it in a broad variety of potential applications, rather than locking down a technology into a very narrow use case,” Norman said.

Norman said the neurotechnology space is becoming more familiar with the idea and concept of brain-computer interfaces, partially due to other companies such as Neuralink Corp. using them to address disorders including paralysis and blindness. He said that the development of this electrode-based neurotechnology has been around for some time and that the devices are usually effective at detecting brain states that are “small and fast.” 

Forest’s interfaces are implanted inside the skull, meaning that brain states can be monitored over extended periods of time. Norman said this allows researchers to apply not only diagnostic and modulation tactics to the brain, but also therapeutic treatment such as seizure mitigation.

“We’re most interested in the brain states that match that description, including everything from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety and neuropathic pain,” Norman said. “The list is quite long.”

The sensors sit inside the skull and on top of the brain, but outside of the brain’s dura mater protective membrane.

“Most of today’s neurotechnologies require you not only to drill a hole, but actually open up this protective membrane around the brain and then insert the electrodes into the brain itself,” Norman said. “Of course, that damages some small amount of tissue … we sit completely outside of the brain, (providing) the ability to replace that device many times without causing damage to the brain.”

As both a venture creation studio and a nonprofit, Convergent positions itself as a supporter of “focused research organizations.” FROs describe startups that are pursuing “engineer- and operations-intensive, scientific public goods projects” that may need more support than an academic lab can undertake but are not directly profitable enough to be venture-backed. Convergent said that its goal in supporting FROs is to advance “moonshot” efforts with the potential to create new scientific tools and discoveries.

“I think moonshots are kind of interesting because we tend to think of them as crazy ideas,” Norman said. “But, in fact, a lot of the science that was there had already been proven, at least in concept … (FROs have) a very focused goal, and they require a sizable engineering team to achieve that focused goal. The original moonshot created a host of different technologies and ideas that spun out into the world and created a great deal of public impact and value. This is our hope for focused research organizations as well.”

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