In a Brooklyn lab lined with 3D printers and a makeshift pickleball court, employees of a brain interface startup called Synchron are working on technology designed to change the daily lives of people with paralysis.
The Synchron Switch is implanted through blood vessels to allow people with no or very limited physical mobility to control technology such as cursors and “smart” home devices with their minds. So far, the technology has been tested on three patients in the US and four in Australia.
“I’ve seen moments between patient and partner, or patient and spouse, where it’s incredibly joyful and empowering to have regained an ability to be a little bit more independent than before,” said Synchron CEO Tom Oxley. “It helps them engage in ways that we take for granted.”
Founded in 2012, Synchron is part of the fast-growing brain-computer interface (BCI) industry. BCI is a system that decodes brain signals and converts them into commands for external technologies. Perhaps the most famous company in this field is Neuralink, the founder of which is Elon Musk.
But Musk isn’t the only tech billionaire betting on BCI’s eventual transition from radical science experiment to booming medical business.
In December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round, which included funding from the investment firms of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
In August 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Synchron the status of “Breakthrough Device“, which is given to medical devices that have the potential to improve treatment of debilitating or life-threatening conditions. The following year, Synchron became the first company to receive FDA approval for patient trials .
Synchron is recruiting patients to participate in an early feasibility trial that aims to show that the technology is safe for use in humans. During the trial, six patients will be implanted with Synchron’s BCI, and Chief Commercial Officer Kurt Haggstrom said the company is now about halfway through completing the trial.
The company has yet to receive any revenue, and a spokeswoman said Synchron would not comment on how much the procedure would ultimately cost.
While many competitors implant their BCIs through open-brain surgery, Synchron uses a less invasive approach that builds on decades of existing endovascular techniques, the company said.
BCI Synchron is delivered through blood vessels, which Oxley calls “natural highways” to the brain. Synchron’s stent, called the Stentrode, is fitted with tiny sensors and is delivered to the large vein that sits next to the motor cortex. The Stentrode is connected to an antenna that sits under the skin in the chest and collects raw brain data that it sends out of the body to external devices.
Peter Yoo, senior director of neuroscience at Synchron, said since the device is not inserted directly into the brain tissue, the quality of the brain signal isn’t perfect. But the brain doesn’t like being touched by foreign objects, Yoo said, and the less invasive nature of the procedure makes it more accessible.
“There’s roughly about 2,000 interventionalists who can perform these procedures,” Yoo told CNBC. “It’s a little bit more scalable, compared to, say, open-brain surgery or burr holes, which only neurosurgeons can perform.”
For patients with severe paralysis or degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Synchron’s technology can help them regain their ability to communicate with friends, family and the outside world, whether through typing, texting or even accessing social media.
Patients can use BCI Synchron to shop online and manage their health and finances, but Oxley says they’re most excited about text messaging.
“Losing the ability to text message is incredibly isolating,” Oxley said. “Restoring the ability to text message loved ones is a very emotional restoration of power.”
In December 2021, Oxley gave his Twitter account to a patient named Philip O’Keefe, who has ALS and is struggling to move his arms. About 20 months earlier, O’Keefe had received a BCI implant from Synchron.
“Hello world! A short tweet. Monumental progress,” O’Keefe wrote on Oxley’s page using BCI.
Synchron technology has attracted the attention of competitors. As reported by Reuters, Elon Musk approached the company to discuss a potential investment last year.
Neuralink is developing a BCI designed to be injected directly into brain tissue, and while the company has yet to test its device on humans, Musk said that he hopes to do it this year.
Haggstrom said his company’s funding will help accelerate Synchron’s product development and push it toward a key clinical trial that will bring the company closer to commercialization.
Khosla Ventures partner Alex Morgan, who led an earlier financing round, said that while Synchron’s device may seem like something out of science fiction, it’s grounded in “real science” and is already making a significant difference in patients’ lives.
“Synchron is actually helping people as of right now, today,” he said in an interview. “That, to me, is really exceptional.”
In January, the medical journal JAMA Neurology published peer-reviewed results of a long-term safety study BCI systems from Synchron in Australia. The study showed that the technology remains safe and does not degrade signal quality or performance over 12 months.
“That was a huge publication for us,” Haggstrom said.
According to Hagstrom, commercialization is a key factor for all industry players.
“I always like to be competitive, and so for me, being first to market is critical,” Haggstrom said. “We meet future patients to talk to about their needs and stuff, and so when you see that, and you talk to these families and the caregivers, you want to race as fast as you can to provide them assistance in their daily life.”