Software developers, forever looking for new platforms to manipulate, have taken an interest in the ultimate piece of retro hardware: the brain.
It’s a gutsy move from the tech industry given the device’s shortcomings. Most models, for instance, can’t outcalculate even a lower-end smartphone, and the retina display is sorely lacking.
The battery life is decent, though. And best of all, most people already have one.
That bodes well for Santa Monica tech company bLife, the latest entrant in the nascent field of neuroscience-driven ventures specializing in the art of “brain hacking.”
The company last week launched an online program it describes as “a personal fitness program for the mind.” The software gives users a 20-question personality test and uses the responses to create a mental training regimen. BLife then runs people through a tailored set of brain games and meditation techniques designed to help them become focused, relaxed and happy.
BLife is for the moment strictly a Web app, but there are plans to release an iPhone app early next year. The cost for this ongoing program is $14.95 a month.
It might sound silly (and pricey), but in a harried culture where people are married to their devices, a growing number of startups are offering solutions to the scourge of high stress and wavering mental energy.
They’re also addressing the problem in a distinctly high-tech way: treating the mind as a device that can be analyzed, quantified and trained.
“Where once the brain was a black box, now we’re starting to see what’s going on,” said Paul Campbell, bLife’s co-founder and chief executive. “Consumer technology is proving that it can play a valuable role in psychological health.”
Other local companies have similarly boarded the industry’s mental wellness wagon. Melon, a Venice startup that’s part of tech accelerator MuckerLab’s latest class, has developed a headband that measures your brain’s electrical activity. Readings from the thin, flexible device are sent to a smartphone app, which in turn recommends ways to keep your mind at peak focus.
The Melon headband is the work of Arye Barnehama and Laura Berman, who both studied the brain mapping field of electroencephalography, or EEG, while researchers at Pomona College. This summer, a funding campaign on Kickstarter brought Melon $290,000 in donations from more than 2,000 people. It was almost three times the project’s initial goal.
The co-founders said Melon’s initial success is another instance of the growing fascination with the “quantifiable self” – a belief that our activities, both physical and mental, should be tracked and measured.
“There’s value in learning about yourself that in a way can be like hacking yourself,” Barnehama said. “Questions like ‘Do I work better at a sitting desk or standing desk?’ have quantifiable answers. You’re A/B testing what works for you.”
These companies are backing up their claims of mental health benefits with hefty boards of scientific advisers.
BLife has a dozen people with Ph.D.s on its advisory committee; Campbell said the company’s primary scientific adviser is Robert Bilder, a UCLA professor who, among other things, directs the Semel Institute Postdoctoral Training Program in Neuropsychology.
Another firm, Marina del Rey’s Focus at Will, has developed an online music player it says is scientifically proved to increase a listener’s focus. Focus at Will bases its science on the work of Evian Gordon, chief executive of Brain Resource, a publicly traded developer of “brain products” with offices in Australia and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Focus at Will founder and Chief Executive William Henshall is a newcomer to the world of neuroscience. He has a background in music production and was a founding member of the ’80s electronic pop group Londonbeat.
But the optimism behind the quantified-self movement and the gizmos attached to it also have drawn a dubious eye from other scientists.
Take Melon’s EEG tracking. The measurement is widely used in medical clinics to gauge brain activity after traumatic events such as strokes. But it’s debatable whether such a blunt tool can monitor something as nuanced as mental focus.
“EEG is a crude measurement. It has the advantage of being an easy device to build, but you don’t get a lot of fine detail” said Ellen Carpenter, chair of UCLA’s department of neuroscience.
Although she’s not familiar with Melon’s headband, she said a precise, room-size device more along the lines of an MRI machine would be needed to accurately track a person’s concentration.
Whether or not the tech companies’ take on medical research is valid, investors have taken note.
BLife’s Campbell would not disclose the exact amount his company has raised, but put the total in the “single-digit millions.” Its lead institutional investor has been San Francisco seed-stage fund True Ventures.
Henshall said Focus at Will has taken in $3 million so far, including a seed investment from Karen Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune.
The experimental and personal nature of the products has made the reaction of venture capitalists hard to predict. Hardware already is a tough sell to investors, let alone a device that tracks something intangible.
“For some, the products have no effect and there’s not much you can do to convince them,” said Henshall, who is in the process of putting together another investment round. “But for the ones that get it, they have a moment that’s near religious.”
The funding effort might also be indirectly aided by the federal government.
Several founders at neuroscience-based tech companies credit the uptick in interest to President Obama’s pledge this spring to spend $100 million in an effort to map the human brain.
Few startups are expecting the money to trickle down to them – it’s primarily directed at larger research institutions. But it sends a message that brain tech is the future, and sometimes that’s all the incentive venture capitalists, ever the trend followers, need.
“There’s so much interest now at the top and people are listening,” Campbell said. “I firmly believe the next frontier of health and wellness will be how we think and behave.”
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