Brain Power: Why Neurotechnology is Making Waves - Transcript

Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hey, it’s Theresa. You know, when people use the expression, it’s all in your head, it said rather dismissively. What they mean to say is you are disconnected from reality. You need to pay more attention to what’s going on around you. And yet, as many scientists will tell you today, more than ever, it really is all in your head. The ancient Greeks knew it. Alchemy in a philosopher slash scientist suggested it’s the brain, not the heart, the rules, the body. He also believed that the brain’s power to synthesize sensations makes it the seat of memories and thought You may remember the 2011 movie Limitless, in which Bradley Cooper plays a struggling author who chances upon a brain enhancing drug that allows him to fully use his brain. It leads him to dizzying success and dramatic risks. The movie’s premise is based on the myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. In fact, we use nearly 100 percent of our brains almost every day. It’s the most complex organ in our bodies, so it’s no wonder that companies everywhere are trying to leverage technology to solve some of our biggest neurological challenges, including depression and traumatic brain injury, and also trying to find ways to enhance our quality of life during the pandemic. Companies sign up for meditation, app subscriptions or offered employees wearable health tech like Fitbits or Apple Watches to help us calm our minds and encourage wellness and productivity. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s now a wide range of new brain computer interface is powered by artificial intelligence, promising to help each one of us reach our full cognitive potential. It’s an exciting time to be studying and working with the human brain and frankly, in 2022. Not a bad idea at all to be all in your head. This is Disruptors and RBC podcast, I’m Trinh Theresa Do. In this episode of Disruptors, we’re exploring the intersection of neuroscience and technology and the exciting opportunities for Canadian investors and consumers in the fields of neurotechnology, neuro monitoring and brain machine or brain computer interface to help us wrap our heads around this. We’ve brought in one of Canada’s top innovators in this space. Derek Luke is CEO of Interaction, whose flagship product is Muse and EEG powered headband, which senses brain activity through meditation exercises. It sends out information to your phone or tablet, providing real time feedback and helping users to find focus, create calm, even sleep better. Since Muse launched in 2014, interacts and has sold more portable EEG devices than any other system in history and has built one of the largest brain data collections in the world. Derek, welcome to disruptors.

Speaker 2 [00:02:59] Thanks, Theresa. Thanks for having me on your show.

Speaker 1 [00:03:01] So it seemed inevitable, given how much time we had to spend alone these past two years that many of us would turn inward. Now, more than ever, we want to understand how our brain works and how we can maximize its ability to make us quote calm a fitter, healthier and more productive. In the words of Radiohead, what have you and muse learned about how our brains have changed or adapted through Covid?

Speaker 2 [00:03:25] First of all, COVID has been hard on many, many people, and I just want to acknowledge that I’ve had a fairly privileged time through Covid. I’ve been employed then and, you know, leading interaxon. We definitely saw a fairly large spike in sales on the onset of the pandemic that lasted three, four or five months, where people, you know, leaned into the technology. And then we did see sales go back to the pre-COVID level. And then just recently, we’re seeing them start to go up again. What we have noticed is a few things like we can monitor when people are meditating, and an interesting one of the things we saw a very large spike of people meditating was the 6th of January in 2020. So you definitely got the ability to go in and look at people’s behavior in terms of how they adopt meditation. To answer your question in an authentic way, here is, I think all of us don’t know how this pandemic is going to affect us. We know it’s been difficult and I think some of the long term effects are still to be seen in terms of people’s mental health, people’s employment, people’s engagement and their work. But what we do is we are collecting data and you know, these long digital studies become very important in terms of research, and we actually have one of our research partners in Mayo Clinic looking at the long term effect of COVID. So. So we’re participating in understanding, but we’ll have to wait to see what these long term effects are.

Speaker 1 [00:04:59] Yeah, that’s fair. And Derek, you took over from Ariel Garten, the co-founder of Interacts in a CEO a few years ago. Then back in Scotland, you studied physics and statistics and have worked at a variety of other tech companies, including BlackBerry. What attracted you to neuroscience and specifically, what was the appeal of

Speaker 2 [00:05:16] Muse area was an amazing human being. I know anyone can take anything over from Maori, which is absolutely amazing. The board in Aria approached me and said, Hey, I too late to join this start up. And you know, my reaction initially was, this is interesting. I thought it was a bit weird, to be honest. This idea of controlling things or are doing things with brainwaves. I mean, we’ve all watched Back to the future and other, you know, other TV shows that have made fun of such technology. So I wanted to try the technology. They had that cupboard. They put me in the cupboard and sat me down and had an apple back behind some curtains and some leads coming out of this Apple Mac and onto my head. And they said, Look, we want you to relax and meditate and you’ll see the weather change. My natural reaction was no way this is fake. I’ve been meditating us and something to. And so I knew how to meditate. I went and I started meditating. And when behold, the weather started to calm down these very basic animated flash graphics. I was stunned. That was in disbelief. Like I didn’t believe. You know, you watch my away from breathing to thinking. Then the weather got bad, OK? And my next reaction was to check behind the curtain to see if anyone who is they are right. But the technology worked. And I just this was such an epiphany for me that be it simple graphics on a on the screen of a bike that you could actually control something with your what’s your thoughts? So from meeting the team, meeting the founders, meeting the board there, I was always 100 percent and you know, that’s where. The Japanese stock.

Speaker 1 [00:07:10] So my understanding is that is not just monitoring brain activity, but it’s providing what’s called neurofeedback, although not traditional neurofeedback. Can you briefly describe Muse’s approach and how the head bands provide that neurofeedback?

Speaker 2 [00:07:23] You know, the technology electroencephalogram EEG has been up for over 100 years. The technology has been there. Most people can relate to it by seeing pictures of people sitting down and having lots of wires coming out of their heads. That’s essentially EEG and issues clinically. And so cap systems that are fairly expensive and used in medical situations for, you know, things for what can epilepsy to whether people are brain dead or neurofeedback far for treating various conditions under the supervision of a physician. So the technology has been about for a long time. What was unique about neurons is that we made it portable and easy to self-administer and created experiences that people could relate to. So the hardware itself is not that complicated stuff. Some fairly sophisticated beta has a sophisticated process, and I know it can handle a lot of data over sampling. But at its fundamental heart, the Muse headband is a waiter.

Speaker 1 [00:08:28] And so what it is a matter for those

Speaker 2 [00:08:30] vessels that vote me for a sometime electrician would use for checking the voltage or how charged a battery is right, so that those photos are true. That an electrician mate is very similar to what might be used for a EKG for measuring people’s hearts. So a very similar technology. The challenge with EEG measuring brainwaves opposed to measuring county signal, it’s about a thousand times smaller and there’s a lot of noise in the body. This electrical signals that you measure using using the mirrors and your body generates lots of them. Every time you blink or you look at last or you or you, you grit your teeth or you move your head and you move your arm, you create electrical signals that are fairly noisy. What our technology does is it can see billboards and use these various techniques for doing it. Uses that can eliminate artifacts are generated by the body, and it can do oversampling to get and see them. So that’s the physical signal that you’re measuring. Where the technology really comes alive is when you can pair it with a mobile phone, the mobile phones that they have tremendous processing power that wasn’t available even 10 20 years ago. And then the other thing is massive cloud infrastructure that you can then take that data and use essentially supercomputers to analyze the data. And what we do is everyone, everyone knows the buzzword artificial intelligence. Everybody has an artificial intelligence solution for everything. But what we hear is a self-supervised slamming, a machine learning technique we use off the shelf Google tool called TensorFlow analysis that makes it very easy to do. And what we can do there is build classifiers. So what we can do is we can actually look at one brain state and compared it to another brain state. So in the case of meditation, like the brain states we’re looking at is one where you’re focused like we could be. We encourage people to focus on the breath, but you can look at a single point or do a mantra, but you’re focused on a single task. And then what you’ve got is like, we’re all familiar that you start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner or did you pick something up from the groceries? So your brain can start to multitask and many way. So what we’re doing is we’re training that brain muscle to stop people multitasking and bring it onto a single point of focus, right? Or be in the zone in terms of what they’re doing there

Speaker 1 [00:10:59] in that brain training sort of speak by providing that real time feedback with slightly more, I guess, aggressive sounds. If your mind is wandering, you’re training your brain to get back into that focus state. And so that sounds to me that it’s beyond just monitoring and getting a little bit into brain stimulation, which I understand is an approach where you attempt to write the brain and change what your neurons are basically up to. I might also not as neuroscience

Speaker 2 [00:11:28] know, note that there is the discoveries out there interesting and some form of cranium stimulation or vague nerve stimulation. And you know, it’s not something we do. What we do is completely passive in terms of monitoring your brain. We have thought about going into that stage and certainly our technology, coupled with some stimulation, could have some merits. The thing this thought was going into this point is, I think a lot of people have concerns when you’re measuring people’s vital signs and data, you know, it’s a lot of privacy concerns they have. There’s a lot of anxiety generated by the measuring. I’m thinking about, right? Do they know I’m thinking about going for a beer tonight rather than going to the gym or something? So like none of that we can do. But the idea of moving into stimulation at this point is just for us one thing, one thing too far at this point in the sense that we operate under the FDA. General Wellness and Health Canada are general wellness, and I think for moving into that stimulation, then getting them to a point where you’re being more like a medical device. No one’s seen that this is used successfully to treat things from migraine or help people get into focus. But these are not something that as a company, we’re focused on at this point.

Speaker 1 [00:12:54] Another area I was hoping to get into with you is different types of brain computer interface. So one of the more well-known contemporary BCI Vikas is Elon Musk, says brain microchip company Neuralink, which uses a neural implant. Why would someone want to use a physical implant versus a noninvasive sensor? To me, it sounds frankly frightening.

Speaker 2 [00:13:16] I mean, I love the technology of Elon Musk. The one thing he has demonstrated that’s usually 25 to 30 years after its promised right, but it does get there, right? I mean, it was promised in the electric car for many, many years, but it gets there, right? I think when you have someone like Elon Musk, what Canada, you know, he sees the potential of it, but you know where we are now to where we need to be in order to to realize his vision is it’s decades apart and in my opinion, with words, with fundamental raw research that needs to be done to bridge that gap. Like the idea of doing surgery on someone to implant electrodes into their brain. I mean, you really have to have a real need in order to go to that type of commitment to do something. So if your idea is to play a video game, perhaps not. Maybe if you are a paraplegic, that technology becomes very important and liberating for you. I think when you run a technology company where you’ve actively got devices out in the field like Elon Musk is committed to the research. He’s not selling dance and commercial, but we are selling commercial products, so I think we have a responsibility to be realistic about what the technology can deliver.

Speaker 1 [00:14:41] Coming up after the break, more of our stimulating conversation with Derek Luke. So stay right there.

You’re listening to Disruptors, an RBC podcast. I’m Theresa Do. In the weeks ahead, Disruptors is launching a special three part series focused on Canada’s net zero transition, and we explore our country’s various paths to energy and climate security and some of the key implications both political and economic. From carbon capture to more renewable energy sources, we evaluate the options ahead and explore the important role of indigenous reconciliation in this transition. The series drops in late April, so be sure to follow disruptors wherever you get your podcasts.

Welcome back. We’re talking with Derek Luke, the CEO of Interaxion about its flagship product Muse and the future potential and constraints for brain computer interfaces.

So how much farther can we push consumer brand technology and what are the other use cases that you’ve been seeing?

Speaker 2 [00:15:46] in terms of the future stuff we’re looking at, we’ve worked with a number of universities that are using our technology and, you know, our no publishing papers, other technologies can be used for stroke detection. That’s one that we don’t really envisage when we started this out with three papers published with that and in conversation with one company that wants to commercialize our technology for elderly stroke detection. The other areas were seen. It coming out is we had a great paper published by the Mayo Clinic, where Muse and our protocols help people on their journey west breast cancer. No, we’re not curing it. But you know, it’s a disability thing. Disease may play as much as physically and their study showed that we help people and not jump. John made dealing with the anxiety of having cancer and using muse as an intervention tool to deal with that. So that was an interesting space that we saw. Other spaces that we’re seeing, the technology emerge is VR, mainly on the medical side. We’re about to release our own developer for VR, supporting Unreal Engine and Unity as well, just for developers. There’s lot of stuff moving in the VR side where you can start looking at people’s responses to certain stimuli. So a great example that would be maybe you’ve got agoraphobia, a fear of spiders. So what we can do is we can detect that level of fear and introduce you to spiders in the VR world. And when we detect that just that your level of being uncomfortable, we can back the experience off and you can also use that type of response to do the opposite. Right? You could use it to scare the bejeezus somewhat because you find out what does scale them and you crank it up. So. So the technology’s got lots of places that can go. Our review as a company is to focus on meditation, on sleep, and then we’re actually developing measures of brain pathology. You’ve got to remember the EEG studies are normally done by 30 people, and it’s very expensive and very time consuming. And here comes along this technology beta and 5000 people. And what we find is we can detect brain aging. We can actually see that brains age as soon as you’re born or know a case. Last year’s those of being 16 to right into the water users of 18, we can actually bring a biomarker of age. So that becomes interesting. Wouldn’t it be cool to understand? Where did you send that card relative to populations? How can you affect that color with lifestyle choices? By eating healthy, by meditating, by sleeping properly, by avoiding disease? So I think one of the most powerful things that you can bring is this idea of mass longitudinal studies that we have. We have now 250 million minutes of brain data, and we had our first classifier for meditation, took us seven years to develop a sleep classifier, took about seven weeks to develop because you’ve got all the data and you’ve now got these off the shelf tools like Google TensorFlow that can do the machine learning for you very, very quickly. So I think if you’re looking at the future, I think the future is going to be less about controlling things. But understanding underlying pathology changes in your brain, be it something severe like a stroke or something like aging that happens over a long time, I think that’s going to be the true value that our technology brings to the world.

Speaker 1 [00:19:27] Derek, if I can go back a little bit earlier, you mentioned that the reason why a musician in the area of brain stimulation is there’s some thorny issues of privacy and user privacy. And so I’m wondering how you navigate that, that question. We’re seeing lots of new rules, of course, coming out of Europe, especially as to how tech companies use their customers data. So what does Muse do or what don’t you do with that trove of brain data that you’re collecting?

Speaker 2 [00:19:51] Yeah, I think the authentic troche relationship with the people that use your technology is paramount to any company. And I think if you lose that, companies will leave you very quickly. So it’s something that we take very seriously. The first part is being authentic about what our technology can help. So that’s the first stage. The second stage is being very open about what we use your data for and where we use your data. So we are complying with all the standards out there in terms of consumer wearables. We don’t allow technology to be used on children. So you have to be 16 and above because we have definitive views on collecting data from children. But when people are adults, you can then often and so therefore what we do is before we collect any data, people have to opt in to AIS collecting not data, and we actually see about a 70 percent Opt-In rate. And we do people with like 6.4 legal ways, right? We make it very clear and very plain English. What we’re doing with your data, we do a to into it. So when we’re doing research, what do not data on a ton of my data, so we don’t know that person. As I say, we have a number of researchers using our product. In fact, McCain can keep up with them. The best way for me to find who’s using our products for researchers is to Google Music research and find out things like that being used for lie detection. I think that, you know again with respect the academic integrity. So if I am academic phones are finding we won’t run ahead then and publish it. Franklin Western University make the claim about the 20 percent improvement sleep. We had their permission in order to do it. And there’s other things we know our technology can do, but we have to again be respectful of the data and in this case, it’s owned by the researchers for them to publish it first. And then we will we will then use it. So, so data privacy and data responsibility goes to your end consumer. It goes to it goes to the legal framework and governance within the country and that you operate there also goes into researchers and the wider community. How do you how do you use that data?

Speaker 1 [00:22:06] Derek, as we move towards close, I’m hoping to pivot slightly. So Canada has world class universities, research labs, medical institutions and last year at the Creative Destruction Lab launched its neuro streams. So this field is picking up steam. And yet what often happens is that we don’t end up commercializing our research or don’t create enough incentives for innovators and entrepreneurs to scale. Here they choose to exit via acquisitions or escape to Silicon Valley and elsewhere to grow. As this field of neurotic continues to develop, what needs to happen for Canada to become a global leader?

Speaker 2 [00:22:42] We are not sure of great companies within Canada and great researchers and great technology leaders and great founders. So we’ve got all the ingredients there and we see all we can see. Our tech sector is flourishing and growing, and the amount of unicorns getting grown in Canada is growing. But to go to your wider question of how do we create an industry around us because some of the leading neuroscientists in the world come from centers based on Montreal, for instance, like very deep understanding of neuroscience. I think what creative destruction labs are doing is a great thing. But right now we are the largest supplier of mobile EEG equipment in the world, though, and we’ve created a company that is that is growing and with 90 percent of our products are exported. Canada’s 10 percent of our market. So I wish I had the answer to that, but I’m encouraged by some of the initiatives I love. Some of the initiatives round IP and Canada’s have recognized that IP is very important to us, and there’s some government initiatives coming out that I’m very encouraged by the focus on, you know, not just startups, but companies that are now scaling. We have a great partnership with Mars, where they’re focusing on scaling partners beyond 100 million or up to 100 million. So I’m encouraged. But could we do more as a country? Yes, is the answer. We are the 10th largest economy in the world, right? We are. We are a big country with a big player, and neuroscience and brain technology is way, way to be acquired, right? I ruined my one vision is not to be acquired with love, to grow this company and in, you know, the next Shopify or the next Wealthsimple, where it’s based in Canada and. But the reality is when you’ve got a big family, you know, 500 pound gorilla, you know, to the south of us, then I think that’s the question we have to get around. This is how do we stop our best technologies being acquired when you know that 100 million or even 500 million or billion? Right? How do we have a go at creating a one trillion dollar companies?

Speaker 1 [00:25:01] So to sum up, the future has a lot of opportunity and a lot of promise, but with an asterisk.

Speaker 2 [00:25:08] I think the actress is owned by the company. I mean, at the end of the day, you have to own your own destiny, either as an individual or a company. And I think we are very optimistic. I mean, we are focusing on on our sleep technology or meditation technology and, you know, brain pathology, some measure of brain health. And then on the other side, we’re looking at licensing our technology where we can do things like stroke detection or or treatment of ADHD or multiple sclerosis or, you know, there’s a lot of interest in things like psychedelics and and VR. So we’re taking that dual approach to it, but we can’t be everything to everyone. You know, one thing you learn very, very quickly, so you have to focus and drive down on that focus. But the right technology is a very vast platform, and I’m optimistic. I think the next three, we will grow significantly in terms of our reach and our capability and the people we employ and the people we help.

Speaker 1 [00:26:12] We’re very interested to see the next stage of Muse’s growth and all of the exciting use cases that will emerge. Derek, thank you so much for this conversation. It was fascinating.

Speaker 2 [00:26:21] Thank you very much, Theresa. It was my pleasure. Thank you.

Speaker 1 [00:26:24] That conversation really stimulated my brain, and it leads me to wonder, how much further will technology be embedded in our lives and bodies? It’s already a mainstay. We spend hours, if not the majority of hours plugged into our phones or laptops or devices. You know, we don’t think of ourselves as cyborgs, but maybe we are. Many of us have grown dependent on technology. We use it to remember important dates to turn on our lights to help us solve our problems. Amuse amuses case to help us sleep. And with these BCI and headsets, technology is really becoming our exoskeleton. One hundred years from now, will we be plugged into the metaverse or the matrix wearing our headbands and continuously optimizing ourselves with our personal brain trainers? I think we may just be entering an era of superhuman cognition enabled by technology. Well, that’s a wrap on this week’s episode. Thanks again to our guest, Derek Luke, the CEO of Interaxon. Join us again next week for the latest tech and innovation buzz with our 10 minute tech series. Until then, I’m Theresa Do and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 3 [00:27:42] Disruptors, an RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by Jar Audio. For more disruptors content, like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit rbc dot com, slash disruptors.