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A Startup’s Journey: Harnessing Brain Activity

A Startup’s Journey: Harnessing Brain Activity

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Ramses Alcaide arrived at the University of Michigan in 2010 with one goal in mind: to help people with disabilities engage more fully with the world. He is almost there.

Working with U-M Tech Transfer, Alcaide advanced technology developed at the U-M Direct Brain Interface Laboratory and created a new startup. Neurable has developed a brain wave interpretation system that allows for uniquely precise and flexible control of devices such as toys, cars, wheelchairs, TVs and video games.
Neurable’s system involves a cap that can detect brain wave activity and turn it into action. He demonstrates the software by moving a Lego Mindstorm car, but has also controlled wheelchairs and a Nissan Versa.
“There’s a brain signal you can see in our logo, the P300. We detect that signal inside the person’s brain activity and then the item they want selected generates this brain signal every time,” he said. “It’s kind of a brain hack that can be used in many ways.”
Alcaide’s use of the university’s resources serves as a master class for other student startups on how to leverage the U-M entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Neurable received support and advice from staff and faculty at U-M Tech Transfer, the Center for Entrepreneurship, the Zell Lurie Institute, the Alumni Association, the School of Information and the Medical School at various times.
“I think what was unique about Ramses is he availed himself of all of the resources that were available throughout the university system,” said Tom Frank, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at U-M’s College of Engineering. “It is somewhere between rare and atypical.”
Ramses Alcaide was born in Mexico, moved to the U.S. when he was five years old and grew up in Seattle. Three years later, a beloved uncle was in a trucking accident that severed both legs. The accident sparked in Alcaide a lifelong passion to find a way to help people with severe disabilities interact with the world.
He spent much of his childhood tinkering with toys like Nintendo entertainment systems. “I used to buy them broken, fix them and sell them back. I guess that also shows how I was an entrepreneur, even from a young age.”
He studied electrical engineering at the University of Washington and moved to U-M to work on his doctorate in neuroscience, working with Jane Huggins, Ph.D., principal investigator at the U-M Direct Brain Interface Laboratory.
“Her lab is one of the few in the world that really focuses on taking brain-computer interface technology and integrating it into real world applications instead of just theory,” Alcaide said.
He initially used the technology, which he developed in his first three-month stint at Huggins’ lab, to help children with cerebral palsy take cognitive tests. He applied it in various projects for Huggins.
Huggins received a grant in 2008 for research into using the brain-computer interface to adjust the position of the seat on a power wheelchair in what they called the hold and release project. It was the term project she gave Alcaide during his 2010 rotation in her lab and what they submitted in the patent application in 2014.
Market research was important for Neurable, Huggins said, because it’s hard in the disability community to establish the size of the population that might need a particular technology. “It’s a level of impairment where people become invisible.”
While the shift to gaming makes sense, Huggins worries that the product could diverge from how it could be used to help people with disabilities.
“It’s wonderful that Ramses has this kind of opportunity,” said Huggins, a scientific advisor to Neurable. “When I talk to Ramses about long-term, he’s very passionate about helping people with impairments.”

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