David Eagleman, noted for his work at his eponymous lab at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the face of a popular public television series on the brain, figured out something rather unexpected about himself this year: He likes being an entrepreneur.
“Maybe it’s not surprising but somehow I’m surprised by it,” he says. “What I’m realizing is it’s really useful to do things on basic science but, in the end, the stuff that really makes a difference for people’s lives is to do the hard work and take a product idea and commercialize it.”
Eagleman says this year he’s spent as much time in his lab as he has at the Texas Medical Center’s startup accelerator, TMCx, where his healthIT company BrainCheck was part of the first class. BrainCheck makes tablet-based software that can analyze cognitive function following concussions.
And recently, his second company, Neosensory, raised $4.2 million to further develop and manufacture its Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer, a vest worn by the severely hearing impaired which is designed to translate sounds into vibrations. Lead investor on the round was True Ventures in San Francisco, with Tao Capital Partners, Houston investor Tristan Renz, and Neosensory attorney Deborah Marshall filling out the slate. (Neosensory also raised more than $40,000 last year in a Kickstarter campaign.)
The vest, which Eagleman demonstrated in a TED talk last March in Vancouver, Canada, is composed of a network of tiny vibrating motors that turn sounds into sensations that then correspond to elements of a word. (Start at the 11:20 mark.) The device, which was developed by co-founder Scott Norvich’s doctoral work in Eagleman’s lab, is designed so that specific patterns of vibrations translate into a word that is “heard” by the user.
Neosensory has a pilot program underway with deaf individuals as it pursues a 510k clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. Eagleman says he expects the vest to be on the market for between $1,000 and $2,000 next year. “The only other alternative is a cochlear implant device, which can cost $40,000,” he says.
Key to the device’s success is making sure users understand what the vibrations are telling them. To that end, Eagleman says they are developing a curriculum of sorts that teaches users the sound-to-vibration language. “It’s important that we get this part right so that this is a wonderful experience,” Eagleman says.
Neosensory has also hired what Eagleman calls a fashion engineer to refine the vest, making it as user-friendly as possible and “optimizing” the electronics, Eagleman says, referring to the exact placement of the motors and the intensity of the vibrations they produce. The vests, which are meant to be used as commonly as hearing aids, run off of lithium-ion batteries, which hold a charge all day and can be recharged like conventional electronics, he added.
Ever the scientist, Eagleman says, he and Norvich aim to publish their work in academic journals, in addition to building Neosensory as a company. “I’m seeing companies as being a really important part of what is going on in terms of being able to disseminate the science,” he says, “and make the rubber hit the road.”