[Updated 2/10/15, 8:07 a.m. See below.] Paul Bach-y-Rita believed technology could help blind people to, in a way, “see” the world around them by substituting touch for sight. After 17 years and nearly $26 million in total funding, the late scientist’s company, Wicab, is closer than ever to turning his idea into reality.
Wicab has gotten some international attention in the past decade for its “BrainPort” device that converts video signals to electronic pulses that are felt on the tongue. But what isn’t widely known is that the company had been on the brink of failure—and that it took refocusing on the vision problem, plus some help from the U.S. military and tech giant Google, to right the ship.
The Middleton, WI, company is now seeking regulatory approval in the U.S. In pilot tests, Wicab’s device has helped blind people navigate sidewalks without a guide dog or cane, aided a blind rock climber to more confidently pursue his passion, and helped blind children in China learn to recognize Mandarin characters and play games of darts.
The technology is based on decades of research by Bach-y-Rita, who pioneered the field of “neuroplasticity,” the idea that the brain can reorganize itself and that senses can substitute for one another—in this case, the tongue’s dense group of receptors delivering information to the brain that would normally arrive via the optic nerve. Bach-y-Rita and his team showed that the brain can be trained to interpret this sensory data and, although it wouldn’t perfectly replicate vision, it could help the blind to better perceive their surroundings.
“Paul famously said we see with our brains and not with our eyes,” Wicab CEO Robert Beckman says. “The eyes are sensors. If the sensor is damaged or not working, you can provide an alternate sensor … to provide the information to the person’s brain.”
The BrainPort device mounts a small video camera to sunglasses that are connected via an electrical cord to a square-shaped, lollipop-like mouthpiece with a grid of 400 electrodes. The video feed is translated into digital signals expressed by the electrodes as light electronic pulses on the tongue. The tongue is an ideal choice for the contact point partly because it’s chock full of nerve endings and is constantly coated in saliva, all the better for conducting the electronic pulses. White pixels from the camera are translated into strong pulses, gray pixels feel slightly weaker, and black pixels result in no stimulation; the device can also reverse that so that darker images trigger the stimulation and lighter ones do not. The sensation, which feels similar to “Pop Rocks” candy, is meant to evoke in the mind a picture “painted on the tongue with tiny bubbles,” the company says—a much more sophisticated version of the children’s game where one interprets words traced by fingers on their back. [This paragraph was updated to include more context about why the tongue was chosen as the contact point.]
Bach-y-Rita, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher, died in 2006 from lung cancer. But his company continued his work, and is now closer to commercializing the BrainPort device in the U.S., after getting approval to sell the product in Europe and Canada in 2013. Wicab is getting ready to publish positive results from a small clinical trial testing the technology, and it awaits U.S. Food & Drug Administration clearance to sell the medical device here, Beckman says.
Wicab’s story is an example of the twists and turns a medical startup can take as it tries to make the sometimes-perilous leap from the research lab to a successful business. A decade ago, the company had a different focus. Between 2005 and 2006, it had convinced investors to pump more than $10.5 million into commercializing its experimental technology primarily for the purposes of helping people with balance problems. At the time, the company combined the electrode-equipped mouthpiece with an accelerometer, which can tell when something tilts. The device would emit soft pulses of electric current that formed a pattern on the person’s tongue. If the person stayed upright, the pattern would remain in the middle of the tongue, but it would shift if the person started to tip over. The technology was thought to help people with chronic balance issues, perhaps through damaged inner ears or a stroke, to train themselves to maintain balance, Beckman says.
Wicab poured money into a clinical trial to test its theory. The device indeed showed it could help people improve their balance, but those in the control group who used a sham device also improved their balance via the series of exercises completed as part of the study, Beckman says.
The clinical trial had failed, and Wicab was running low on capital and forced to lay off a chunk of its staff, which had been in the 20s. “To be quite honest, I thought we were dead in the water,” Beckman recalls.
But Wicab stayed afloat thanks to two things. First, it shifted its focus toward applying the technology to help the blind, Beckman says.
Second, it won funding in 2010 from two high-profile sources to pursue its new plan. One was the U.S. Department of Defense, which awarded Wicab a $3.2 million grant to see if the technology could help soldiers blinded by improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other source was Google, which gave Wicab $2.5 million to fund the 75-person study, but didn’t take an equity stake in the company, Beckman says.
The Google funding was serendipitous for Wicab. A U.S. Air Force general and a Silicon Valley venture capitalist heard about the BrainPort device and arranged a demonstration at Google’s headquarters in California. The pair wanted to help Mike Malarsie, an Air Force senior airman who was recently blinded by an IED in Afghanistan.
Malarsie tried out the BrainPort after a quick tutorial by neuroscientist Aimee Arnoldussen, who at the time was leading Wicab’s clinical research. Among the spectators were a few Google employees, including Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman and former CEO, Arnoldussen says. Google later decided to back further BrainPort research partly because “they witnessed somebody benefiting from the technology and wanted to make a difference for people who are blind,” Beckman says.
Malarsie says he was confused at first by the concept of the device. “You’re going to put this thing on your tongue and it’s kind of going to draw what you’re looking at. When they said it, it made absolutely no sense,” he says.
But he quickly got the hang of the BrainPort, Arnoldussen says. In one of the tests, she held a ruler against … Next Page »