For the inaugural episode of our new podcast, Xconomy Voices, we chose to speak with Bay Area entrepreneur and executive Mary Lou Jepsen. She leads a startup called Openwater, which is developing a new kind of wearable imaging device that might one day enable communication by thoughts alone. Of course, there are nearer-term goals as well, such as supplementing (and even replacing) bulky, expensive MRI machines.
Xconomy has followed Jepsen’s work over the years—from her role as CTO of One Laptop Per Child, to senior executive positions at Google X and Facebook/Oculus. In this recent conversation, we focused on her new ideas and strategies around Openwater, as well as lessons in consumer electronics, imaging, and startups from the past few decades.
Here is the full transcript of our interview (which includes a lot of material not in the podcast):
Xconomy: Thank you for being on the show, Mary Lou Jepsen. It’s great to have you here.
Mary Lou Jepsen: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Xconomy: Could you start off by saying a little bit about who you are? And then talk a little bit about what you’re up to these days.
MLJ: Sure. I’m Mary Lou Jepsen. I’m the former co-founder of One Laptop Per Child, I was its first CTO. At Google I founded and ran a couple of “moonshots” for Sergey Brin, and at Facebook I was executive director of engineering and worked on bringing virtual reality and augmented reality to the next level. Among the things I founded or co-founded were four startups—I’m very technical, also as a professor at MIT—and my most recent startup, the one I left Facebook for, is Openwater.
Xconomy: What is the driving idea, then, at Openwater? What are you trying to build there?
MLJ: We’re working on a wearable MRI system that doesn’t use MRI. MRI resolution “plus plus.” And the impact is targeted for two areas. Obviously one in health care. And not so obviously, the same device will enable telepathy, meaning communication with human thought alone.
Xconomy: That’s pretty provocative when you put it that way. But when you say MRI you don’t literally mean Magnetic Resonance Imaging, right? You mean an MRI-like kind of sensing of what’s going on inside the body.
MLJ: Right. A way to see inside of your body with equivalent resolution or even higher resolution.
Xconomy: We all know that MRI is expensive and uses these giant magnets and that’s why the machines are only inside hospitals. So is part of the idea here, too, to make it smaller and cheaper?
MLJ: Exactly. Put it into a ski hat or a bra for breast cancer detection or a bandage. Exactly.
Xconomy: OK. Well, how will it work? I mean, what’s the basic science behind this whole idea?
MLJ: So the basic idea is that the body is translucent to near-infrared light. That’s the light that’s wavelengths a little bit longer than red. Not that harmful UV light, but the stuff you can see with night vision goggles. And the body’s translucent to it, but it scatters it. And the basic idea is to use highly custom LCDs with embedded detectors to, first, take a hologram of the scattering of your body and, second, invert the scattering—this is a little technical—using a principle called phase conjugation. And this effect neutralizes the scattering of the body so that we can look at the differential optical signals like changes in the color of the blood which corresponds to oxygen use, changes in refractive index, differential scattering. And these collectively can give the equivalent or even more information than today’s MRI, but at a consumer electronics-type cost and scale.
Xconomy: Wow. So, can you give listeners a little bit of an idea, like a visual picture, of what these LCD arrays and detectors might look like? You mentioned a ski hat. So give us that image.
MLJ: Yeah. Line the inside of a piece of clothing like a ski hat. The lining is an LCD, an embedded detector illuminating with near infrared light instead of visible light but with objects that are quite similar to the LCD in your cell phone. But we can make them flexible. They’re harder in many ways but they’re also easier in many ways than today’s cell phones, [where] you can’t have one bad pixel in this device. It doesn’t really matter. You can have several, many bad pixels. The manufacturing processes, the design constraints are quite different.
But the idea is to fit them into clothing. One question I get a lot is will they be wired or wireless, and the answer to that is certainly our prototypes are going to be wired. We haven’t decided yet on our first products, whether they’ll be wireless or wired, but eventually we’ll go wireless.
Xconomy: OK, so they would be kind of a mesh or a flexible network of LCDs with detectors kind of mixed into that. So you’d be transmitting infrared from the LCD. And then there would be little sensors mixed in among the LCDs that will be picking up the light. Do I have that right?
MLJ: Yeah, like we did in the early 2000s before we did projected capacitive screens. There’s this really cool effect that Einstein explained, the photoelectric effect. And so with silicon you can get it to work in both ways. You can detect light when light hits silicon and the current changes, and we can measure that. So that’s been known for some time and used widely. And again, I don’t buy off the shelf LCDs. For about 20 years I’ve been working and shipping really, really innovative optical electronics components using the big, multi-billion dollar fabs of Asia, to ship billions of dollars of complex hardware/software systems that were really differentiated by the screens in the optical electronics. And so I’m deeply familiar with every single manufacturing process in these multi-billion dollar fabs of Asia. And very few people are because very few employees who are not of the companies themselves get access to these facilities. That’s the thing that I’ve done and I’m leveraging here to drastically reduce the cost and size of medical imaging devices.
Xconomy: So it could be sort of an unexpectedly welcome spin off of all of the development work that’s been going on in manufacturing for cheap, small, light phones and other kinds of devices with displays.
MLJ: Right. I was running advanced virtual reality and augmented reality at Facebook and Oculus, and myself and effectively my colleagues at the other large companies made a compelling story to the manufacturers who live at very slim margins to make many manufacturing processes, to make smaller pixels for higher resolution screens for the next generation virtual reality and augmented reality. And with those process changes coming down the pike I realized I could finally come to a solution of this other problem I’ve been working on for about 20 years. How could you make lower cost MRI-like resolution systems, and leveraging consumer electronics manufacturing to sort of democratize it and get it out to more people.
Xconomy: You gave a TED talk back in 2013 that has something like almost a million views, and you told a little bit of that story then. So could you go through a little bit of that now? I mean, you’ve been thinking about this problem for a long time.
MLJ: Yes. Since the late 90s I think. I had a brain tumor when I was in grad school and got it removed, and I only took a month out actually. I was going to drop out and I actually filled out the paperwork to drop out of my Ph.D. in optical physics at Brown because I was so sick. And then somebody sprung for the cost of an MRI. They found that brain tumor, I had it surgically removed, one month later they let me back into grad school.
I finished my Ph.D. six months later and co-founded my first startup. And I never forgot how close I was to death. I’ve been taking pills for the last 22 years. Every day a dozen pills. And missing those pills or not being able to get access to them profoundly changed my sense of self, my sense of my ability to think. I modulate myself in a way that almost no one else can, because they haven’t had that part of their brain removed.
Meanwhile I became fascinated by neuroscience, and as a matter of self-preservation read very widely on this subject for the last 20 years, and became very interested in advances at that time—in early 2011, 2012—advances in small magnet systems. And I thought that maybe we could make not bigger magnets but better magnets using devices there. Some of them [are known by] an acronym called SQUIDs. Not real squids but a kind of interesting magnetic phenomenon in small size. And I started to delve into that, and actually pitched that to Larry and Sergey when they were starting up Solve for X. I pitched this as a project about creating a system where you could communicate with human thought.
And I think Sergey Brin was smitten and acqui-hired me and my company. But he directed us to not work on that project, and instead I founded and ran a couple of moonshot programs for him that are still stealth. But I still wanted to do this.
Xconomy: At some point you pivoted from the idea of using these magnets, these SQUIDs, superconducting quantum interference devices, and you’re now using infrared. So what happened there?
MLJ: I read a paper in 2014, maybe I read it in 2015, about a group in St. Louis actually who used diffuse optical tomography—sorry there’s another technical [term]—but using infrared light to look through the scattering of your body. It matched the resolution of an MRI system to a couple of centimeters of depth in the head. They weren’t inverting the scattering, but using a fiber optic way and a refrigerator full of detectors, a refrigerator sized system. They were able with near infrared light to match the resolution of functional magnetic resonance imaging.
And I saw that paper and I looked at the pictures in it and have subsequently gone and seen the place and met the people. But I was just floored. I thought, wow. It’s not a magnetic thing. We could do this optically. That’s my thing! And these brilliant researchers and neuroscientists have made this major breakthrough, but they don’t know much about consumer electronics at all, shipping product. So maybe I should dive in and work on this on the side.
And at that point I was at Facebook so I was no longer banned from thinking on the side. Mark Zuckerberg was one of the reasons I joined Facebook. In my interview with Mark, I started talking about my desire to work in brain imaging. And there was a whiteboard in the room we were having dinner and I swear his feet didn’t touch the ground for the rest of the dinner. He was excited.
But at Facebook my day job, my full time job, was really doing advanced VR/AR stuff, running and setting up, well I’m not supposed to talk about what I did there. But anyway obviously it was in setting up interesting inventions and … Next Page »