Turning Accidents into Opportunities & Taking Risks to Change the World— Full
Dr. Philip Low, Founder, Chairman and CEO of NeuroVigil, discusses the mission of his brain monitoring and analytics company, the importance of taking risks in building your business and how unexpected circumstances can be turned into valuable opportunities.
Key takeaways from this episode of StartUp Health NOW can be found here.
[00:04] Unity Stoakes: Welcome to StartUp Health Now! The weekly web show that celebrates the Healthcare Transformers and changemakers reimagining health. My name is Unity Stoakes and we’re in San Francisco at the Wearable Tech and Digital Health Conference. We’ve got a very interesting show. We’re gonna be meeting with Dr. Philip Low the CEO and founder of NeuroVigil. We’re going to be talking about the exciting world of neurotechnology. Stick around it’s going to be a great show.
[00:30] Intro Music
[01:08] Unity: Welcome Philip. It’s great to be here with you. I thought we’d start the conversation learning about your passions. How you started as an innovator and entrepreneur in the health space. Take us back to the beginning.
[01:23] Dr. Philip Low: Alright. Terrific. Thank you very much for having me today. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m honored to be able to share a bit of my story.
[01:33] Dr. Low: The way it started was all by accident. When I was 10 years old my father was thrown in jail because he threatened somebody with a weapon. It was found some time later that the pill that he was taking was actually responsible for his behaviors. Something that I didn’t really believe at the time but he was pardoned by the Swiss Parliament
[02:00] Dr. Low: Very early on in my life I understood that it was possible that pills could have a dramatic effect on people’s physiology and behaviors. I went to America shortly after my 16th birthday and enrolled in the University of Chicago. I studied mathematics and physics as well.
[02:23] Dr. Low: There was another accident during my junior year. The faculty had forgotten to remove my name from a mailing list which would go to all the biology students taking the sequence in biology in my sophomore year. They were looking for a student to go to Harvard Medical School to take over there. But this was just for biology students not for math geeks which is myself. I had a theory that nobody wanted to listen to and so I sent a little pamphlet to Harvard and they chose me.
[03:00] Dr. Low: In nine weeks I was able to discover that a particular drug was actually very effective and I didn’t realize this was very abnormal to have a result like that.
[03:11] Unity: Pretty fast cycle there.
[03:12] Dr. Low: Exactly. What ended up happening is that in my next job after didn’t have a good result in nine weeks I actually stopped cashing my paychecks because I thought I wasn’t working hard enough. I nearly got evicted from my apartment twice until some post doc told the head of the lab that I wasn’t paying myself and he said, Philip, it’s called research for a reason.
[03:35] Dr. Low: To make a long story short what happened was at Harvard Medical School I was very, very excited about all the beautiful living organisms that one could really study, but as a mathematician, I wanted some quantitative rigor. There was this new field called computational neuroscience and it was emerging.
[03:56] Dr. Low: I wrote a letter to the only person I could think of after I’d been involved in some graduate courses in computational science who knew a little bit of microbiology and he knew a little bit about computational neuroscience. That was Francis Crick Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine. He knew a little bit about microbiology because he discovered DNA. [laughs]
[04:13] Dr. Low: Discovered it and he knew quite a bit about neuroscience because he was now a neuroscientist running a program at the Salk Institute.
[04:19] Dr. Low: He invited me to do my Ph.D. and I turned him down because I thought it wasn’t ready yet and I stayed for a year in Chicago worked on birds at that time who were sleeping birds, but I was looking at their brain rhythms and then I accepted Francis’s invitation. Went to the Salk Institute. There was another accident which is
[04:43] Unity: All these accidents. But they turned into beautiful opportunities.
[04:47] Dr. Low: Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur a very important quote. That was exactly it. I invented a new method to monitor brain activity in birds and I found out that there wasn’t an algorithm that was around to actually make sense of this data.
[05:07] Dr. Low: So, I invented the algorithm. From that point on I said no to four offers from Caltech, Harvard, MIT and Oxford in order to start my own laboratory. But I ended up instead starting my company.
[05:28] Dr. Low: So, this is a very, very tortuous path. I know you prefer a 5-second answer
[05:30] Unity: No, it’s it’s very interesting. It sounds like one of the common themes I’m hearing here is that you that chance. You write the letter. You contact the person you want to meet. You put yourself in the same room as an expert or someone that inspires you. Have you always been that way? What are your thoughts in terms of recommending that type of strategy to other entrepreneurs and innovators that are trying to really get started?
[06:04] Dr. Low: That’s a great question and it’s a very keen observation. I think there is no entrepreneurship without risk. You have to be willing to take a risk and you have to be willing to fail and you have to be willing to sacrifice your entire personal life and your well-being. This is what it takes. This is why I resent when the name entrepreneur, entrepreneurship is sort of used as a badge left and right.
[06:30] Dr. Low: It really means being able to take a huge risk. I would say go for it. You can’t get what you don’t ask for. If you’re passionate about what you do, if you think that you can really change the world or have a shot at it, then you’ll regret not trying as opposed to trying.
[06:48] Unity: Let’s dig in a little to NeuroVigil, your company, and starting with the mission. What is your mission?
[06:58] Dr. Low: We’re at this conference right now. The people who are presenting, most of them probably have healthcare. It’s reasonable to assume that maybe eighty percent of them had their blood pressure checked in the last two years.
[07:15] Dr. Low: What NeuroVigil is about, is making it possible to check our brain activity. Not only once every three years but chronically. With this algorithm that I created during my Ph.D. I was able to create a map of brain activity from a single EEG, encephalogram. So, I bring a small device that actually does [crosstalk]
[07:36] Unity: That’s one of your products.
[07:38] Dr. Low: That is the product that captures the encephalogram. In 2009 we did our first contract with, a big pharmaceutical company to enable them to monitor the brain without bringing patients in the hospital. So we could actually avoid situations such as my father’s and look at the effect the drugs were having on the brain in the clinical trial before a drug that might otherwise be desired for is really suggested.
[08:09] Dr. Low: Empower people. Give them more data. Then in 2010 we had an alliance with Stanford for autism. In 2011 we started working with Stephen Hawking and this is a different way of work that we’re doing which is to enable people who are completely paralyzed to communicate just using their mind.
[08:28] Dr. Low: I’ll discuss this tomorrow in my lecture. Subsequently, we’ve been approached by a senior care industry and what we’re doing now has been releasing a device another generation of iBrains to actually enable seniors to be screened for early signs of Alzheimer’s from their own retirement home before they have any symptom.
[08:52] Unity: Just based off of how they’re thinking, or their brain activity?
[08:56] Dr. Low: Based on the brain activity. If we see that they have problems with their sleep patterns, which is one of the variables that is affected by Alzheimer’s, then we will do an amyloid test, spinal tap and fMRI and then if they’re positive in all of those then we know that statistically, we have people who are highly likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
[09:15] Dr. Low: We want to be able to work with them before they act
[09:19] Unity: Early.
[09:20] Dr. Low: Absolutely. In the disease documented. So that the many drugs that may actually be neuroprotective early on in the disease as opposed to later on. So, the idea is to go from a reactive art to proactive science, map the brain and empower people. Because what will happen is in this particular trial we have a sponsorship for ten million people which is rather, you know, superlative just in terms of scope.
[09:49] Dr. Low: What will happen in these types of trials is that once we know that these people fail these tests then we can get them that help. That’s crucial.
[10:00] Unity: This very exciting emerging field of neurotech. Maybe share a little insight into what the future looks like as a result of these extraordinary innovations taking place. What are the practical implications for everyday people? We just talked about the Alzheimer’s case which is extraordinary. What are some of the other opportunities? What does the future look like as a result?
[10:30] Dr. Low: Great question. When I started in that field and I explain to people that I was neurotech, they didn’t understand what that meant. Now I go to conferences and I see neurotech everywhere. I run the first international Congress on Alzheimer’s disease and advanced technologies, and people were begging me to drop the name neurotech from the title. Now it’s sort of commonplace. It’s sort of funny how that works.
[10:54] Dr. Low: What I think what will happen with neurotech is very exciting. We are now the cusp in neuroscience where we are going to actually be recording most of our data outside of laboratory as opposed to inside the laboratory. Meaning the whole world is going to become a giant laboratory.
[11:14] Unity: Is that because we’re connected? We’ve got diagnostics?
[11:17] Dr. Low: We have small probes and we have algorithms that enable us to actually collect data from a tiny footprint. So, imagine if this election season right now. Imagine if you picked the President of the United States just by going into a room and sampling maybe .1 percent of the population and based on that poll that’s it.
[11:39] Dr. Low: .1 percent population in the room. In other words, just a handful of people and you picked the President. In a way, that’s what we’ve been doing in neuroscience.
[11:47] Dr. Low: We’ve been sampling very few people and making huge models of the brain. Now we’re going to be able to sample tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands of people. Millions of people. That will completely revolutionize the way we do clinical trials.
[12:03] Dr. Low: One of the very interesting things that’s been happening, if you look at a clinical trial literature, is the following. The control group does better and better. Doctors are getting better and better and individuals feel quite good after they go see the doctor.
[12:22] Dr. Low: That’s actually a huge problem because the number of drugs that would actually do rather well but they’re lost in the noise because this control group is getting this big bump. If you work with very small numbers of people that can happen a lot. So, what will happen with neurotech is that we will be able to sample large numbers of people. Not force them to a particular regimen. As long as we know what to do they’re doing we can partial derivatives on the data and find out if it was a vitamin, if it was a drug, if it was an exercise regimen, that actually caused them to improve. So, we’re going to, the whole world is going to become a laboratory.
[13:06] Unity: Will this improve people’s well-being?Their health as a result?
[13:09] Dr. Low: Absolutely. Because we’ll be able to measure everything. Big data is another one of those words people love to use, but so far big data, you might not like this, but big data is like teenage sex. Everybody talks about it. Nobody knows how to do it, everybody thinks everybody else is doing it, nobody’s doing it.
[13:32] Unity: Especially on the scale you’re talking about.
[13:33] Dr. Low: That’s right. We’re going to get into big data now because we will have these tangle of probes that are going to go viral. So that will enable us to test a lot of hypotheses. It also means that we will be able to track people longitudinally over years.
[13:52] Dr. Low: If you look, for example, at the way things are done currently. Right now to get a drug to the market we spend per year forty billion dollars. Per year. This is industry, government, and academia. We sacrifice about a hundred million vertebrates to do this. The probability that we will get a drug to be tested in humans is about 6 percent. In the human trials, a third of those people are going to drop off because they can’t stand being in the hospitals.
[14:25] Dr. Low: All of that is going to change. There are plenty of nutraceuticals and supplements which actually have a real effect and there are plenty of therapies in senior care homes, people know that there are a number of therapies that are very effective. But none of these things have been measured. Once we can actually measure all of these different things we’re going to have an arsenal of therapies that will improve people’s health, and there is a lot of bogus stuff we will be able to say that’s bogus, doesn’t work.
[14:50] Dr. Low: We will have the numbers. So at the end of the day it’s going to benefit individuals and if you look like, I know when individuals purchase food in the supermarket, they look at labels very carefully. They don’t do this yet with the drugs because they don’t know exactly, the don’t think they have choices. Once we empower individuals to know how they respond to these drugs everything is going to change.
[15:17] Unity: Fantastic. If people wanna learn more about NeuroVigil or just neurotech in general any places that you recommend they go to? Books, or journals, or blogs, or things that you would recommend other entrepreneurs, innovators should be paying attention to?
[15:39] Dr. Low: In terms of our company that can go to our website if they’re interested.
[15:42] Unity: Neurovigal.com?
[15:44] Dr. Low: Absolutely. If they’re interested in basic research there are plenty of centers around the country that are extremely advanced. The NIMH has done a very good job of sharing some of the latest innovations with the world. If they’re interested from an entrepreneurial perspective in terms of what is going on, nothing beats speaking to entrepreneurs.
[16:06] Dr. Low: This is why I think your show does such a wonderful service to these individuals because they learn about the entrepreneurs and then through their websites they can contact them. So, it’s again just like what I did. You write a letter and if you write something that excites that other person just go for it.
[16:23] Unity: Last question. What do you personally do to stay healthy? Maybe something that you think impacts the brain from your learning?
[16:32] Dr. Low: I sleep four hours. I had four hours of sleep last night. Actually, if you look at the amount of sleep that people; if you look at sleep vs. mortality it’s sort of a u-shaped curve. This idea that we need to sleep eight hours to live longer, it’s actually not true at all.
[16:45] Dr. Low: Four is a little bit on the shorter side so it’s a u-shaped curve.
[16:49] Unity: So you don’t wanna be in the middle you wanna be either eight hours or four hours.
[16:52] Dr. Low: No, you actually do want to be in the middle.
[16:55] Unity: Oh ok. Six hours
[16:58] Dr. Low: Six hours for many people, that’s a good thing.
[17:03] Unity: And every person is different of course.
[17:04] Dr. Low: That’s right, there isn’t one particular number for everybody. But what I do is I’m vegan, so that actually has been a tremendous thing for me. I have such a huge energy boost. Right now I don’t need anything. I just had a diet coke today. I slept four hours last night. I’ve been on the phone with Asia and with Europe all day long and I’m not too tired. That has given me a tremendous amount of energy.
[17:32] Dr. Low: The other thing is to do it is I as an entrepreneur, and I think that’s sort of an important thing to do, it is very important to exercise. There will always be things that are last minute and things we feel we should be doing but if you can’t take care of yourself you’re not going to be able to take care of your company, your loved ones, all those people who depend on you. All the patients that you’re serving, your clients, your team members, your investors, and so on. You have to be a rock for everybody else. It is a very, very lonely journey but it is a possibility to change the world and to get to do that. Certainly taking care of yourself.
[18:17] Unity: Well said and thank you for everything that you’re doing for the ecosystem and the future. It’s very exciting. Thank you. Thank you very much, we’ll see you soon.