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Thync Adds Brain Electrodes to the Mix in Mobile Health Wearables

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Khosla Ventures has been staking out a notable claim in the mobile health field by investing in companies that track physical activity, vital signs, social interactions, eye functioning, and even the chemicals released in a user’s breath.

Now, another one of the VC firm’s companies is hoping to take things a little further.

Rather than merely producing mobile data that nudges users toward better health habits, Los Gatos, CA-based Thync says it is working on a wearable device designed to directly perk up or calm down the brain through “electrical stimulation wave forms” delivered by electrodes placed on the scalp.

Beyond that, Thync co-founder Jamie Tyler wasn’t ready to reveal much more this week, though he says the company is likely to pull back the curtains on its first product next year. Its wearable device will be “small enough to take with you,” and convenient to use throughout the day when users want to relax, or become energized and focused, he says.

It also won’t make you look like you’re getting an early start on Halloween.

“You don’t have to shave your head,” Tyler says. “You would not look like a robot. You would not look like some cyborg.”

The electrodes have been made comfortable by improved biomaterials, and Thync’s brain stimulation technology has been tested on more than 1,500 healthy people in 4,000 sessions, Tyler says. The testing is ongoing in Boston, where Thync has an outpost.

But publications on the studies are yet to come, as is the product, so Thync’s claims are impossible to seriously evaluate at this point.

Khosla Ventures has been Thync’s lead investor as the company raised a total of $13 million since its founding in 2011. A Series B round closed earlier this year, though Thync hasn’t disclosed the amount. Khosla Ventures partner Samir Kaul is a member of Thync’s board.

Proof is currently thin on the ground, not only for Thync, but also for many of mobile health’s offerings.

But that hasn’t discouraged developers or investors so far. A thick crop of mobile-connected wearables—watches, wristbands, clip-ons—has already sprouted up, and many of them are designed to foster health and fitness. Accelerometers and other sensors can measure the body’s movement, speed, heart rate, and other factors related to exercise.

The recent unveiling of the Apple Watch has energized the field, as has the collaboration of the fashion industry with mobile health developers. For example, designer Tory Burch has created a line of bracelets and pendants that house San Francisco-based Fitbit’s activity and sleep-tracking device called Flex.

Some mobile health wearables are already addressing brain health and states of mind—the territory Thync plans to occupy. Boston-based Neumitra offers a watch that gauges the activity of the sympathetic nervous system to measure stress in response to the experiences of daily life, such as work and social interactions. The Neumitra system links users to relaxation exercises that moderate stress. A clip-on device sold by Spire tracks breathing rate as a stress indicator, and the app suggests a walk or another calming break when the user seems to be getting tense.

Thync may face higher regulatory hurdles than those companies, because its device is designed to affect the brain directly, and physically. Tyler says the company has had discussions with the Food and Drug Administration, and still awaits the FDA’s decision on how Thync’s product will be classified—as a medical device or a consumer product, more easily cleared for the U.S. market.

Tyler, an associate professor at Arizona State University, says Thync’s studies have charted the locations on the scalp where electrical stimulation can shift the brain into states of calm or increased focus. The company’s earliest product will use only electrical wave forms, though Thync is also researching the effect of ultrasound waves on the deeper centers of the brain.

Thync’s co-founder is entrepreneur and investor Isy Goldwasser, former CEO of Santa Clara, CA-based Symyx Technologies. Goldwasser is also a former entrepreneur-in-residence at Khosla Ventures.

Thync is not only vying for a place in the wearables market, but is also seeing itself as a competitor to energy drinks, coffee, alcoholic drinks, and other products consumed to change mood.

“They’re not targeted,” Tyler says. “They don’t just act on neural pathways, they act on other organs.”

Do Thync’s electrodes have a shot at helping consumers bypass Starbucks or the local beer joint? There’s no way of knowing until regulators have their say, and the product finally emerges for a test spin. Tyler pledges that it won’t be long.