Backyard Brains, an Ann Arbor, MI-based startup founded by two neuroscientists from the University of Michigan, is making a name for itself by selling a plethora of fun, do-it-yourself science projects for budding makers and researchers—including what it calls the world’s first commercially available cyborg.
If you’re picturing Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator,” think again: The cyborgs from Backyard Brains have six legs, can supposedly survive nuclear holocausts, and are usually an unwelcome sight when spotted indoors. But for $99, you, too, can have your very own remote-controlled Robo Roach. (More on how Backyard Brains is turning cockroaches into cyborgs in a minute.)
Yet, intriguing technology only goes so far in business; try telling a room full of venture capitalists why they should back a company creating an army of tiny, six-legged cyborgs. So Backyard Brains has had to experiment with business models as well as insects. Now, after subsisting mostly on grants and modest sales revenues for the past five years, the startup has moved into a new phase where it is forming partnerships with education and retail organizations—and capturing more of the world’s attention with its democratizing, DIY approach to teaching people the basic principles of neuroscience.
The company’s goal is to bring its products to a much wider audience and inspire young scientific minds to study neuroscience, in part to help combat brain disorders that affect huge numbers of people. But before that happens, more of the world at large needs to discover the home experiments Backyard Brains is developing. To that end, founder Greg Gage gave a TED talk in March that has since gone viral, racking up more than 1.6 million views so far and spreading Backyard Brains’ “neuroscience for everyone” gospel.
“Our sales have gone through the roof since the TED talk was posted online,” Gage said, clearly excited by the potential opportunities to come.
Backyard Brains was started by Gage and Tim Marzullo in 2009. Gage loved doing outreach and teaching local school kids about how neuroscience works. He and Marzullo created a tiny “spiker box,” a device that acts as a bioamplifier to hear and see real-time spikes in neurons belonging to insects and invertebrates, as a grad school project, and it became the company’s flagship product.
The pair designed the spiker box with 12 accompanying neuroscience lessons that kids 5th grade and older could tackle, complete with lesson plans that featured cartoon characters. In 2013, Backyard Brains launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $12,000 to fund the development of the Robo Roach kit—essentially a tiny backpack for cockroaches permitting brief, wireless control of the lateral movement of a cockroach by microstimulation of the antenna nerves. You tickle a nerve and the roach is compelled to go left or right; experimenters can also record and analyze their data on a mobile app.
As part of the Robo Roach experiments—which first involve plunging a cockroach into ice water to shut off its nervous system and dull pain before performing minor surgery on the roach’s antennae—kids learn about the anatomy and nervous system of a cockroach, as well as proper surgical and husbandry techniques for experiments on insects. Gage took the Robo Roach around to local classrooms to show kids how neuron activity in the brain could be influenced and recorded, and the response was strong. The journal Nature caught a demo of a Backyard Brains experiment at a conference and ran an article about it, and people soon began asking where they could buy the Robo Roach spiker box kit.
Gage described the kits as “$34,000 in recording equipment for $99,” able to monitor the neuron activity of insects. But the applications are much broader. Twenty percent of the world’s population has a neurological disorder such as depression, schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease, Gage said, and the Robo Roach is the perfect way to introduce kids to basic neurological processes that may be key to understanding those diseases.
“These are very expensive, incurable diseases, and we have tools to get kids interested,” Gage said. “We want to inspire a generation of citizen-scientists. If we can lower the barrier to entry so the only limit is creativity, that might help with finding treatments for neurological disorders.”
And while this roach surgery thing may sound a bit gruesome, Gage insists Backyard Brains’ experiments don’t cause the insects any significant, lasting harm. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) made a stink in 2013 and announced it was boycotting the company, going as far as filing a complaint with Michigan’s attorney general. Eventually, Apple and Google both pulled the Robo Roach app from their respective app stores, and it took letters of support from the head of the National Institute of Mental Health, a Harvard … Next Page »