Unlocking the Mysteries of the Mind — Full Transcript
Entrepreneurs are currently developing digital tools to help us understand our brains better than ever before
What’s in store for the future of neuroscience? Neurosteer Founder Nathan Intrator says despite seemingly little progress decoding the brain in recent decades, the future looks bright. Learn how advanced sensors, signal processors and wearables are changing the field.
Key takeaways from this episode of StartUp Health NOW can be found here.
Steve: [0:04] Hi, welcome to another episode of StartUp Health NOW, the weekly show celebrating the Healthcare transformers and change makers re‑imagining health care.
[0:11] My name is Steven Krein and today we’re at the Wearable Tech and Digital Health Conference in New York City, organized by ApplySci, and we’re sitting down with Dr. Nathan Intrator, a professor and a successful entrepreneur from Tel Aviv University. This is going to be a great episode.
[0:23] [intro music]
Steve: [1:01] Welcome back to StartUp Health NOW. We’re sitting down with Dr Nathan Intrator, a professor and an entrepreneur, who is with us at the Wearable Health and Tech Conference, here in New York City. Thanks for sitting down with us today.
Nathan: [1:14] Sure, my pleasure.
Steve: [1:16] I want to step back cos you’ve got a great background both as an educator and a serial entrepreneur. You’re back at it again building another company. Who is Nathan?
Nathan: [1:28] I’m interested in the brain. This is really what I’ve been interested in the last 20 years, 25 years. Everything else is coming out of that. I built expertise in signal processing in machine learning which I’ve been using for about 15 years, to understand how the brain works. Lately I’ve been using it to actually develop new technologies to analyse the brain better.
Steve: [1:52] That’s the common theme in everything you’ve done. What was the first entrepreneurial venture that you did get involved in?
Nathan: [2:01] The first entrepreneurial venture was related to asthma. I have asthma in my family. After a while I realized that it’s a little bit of signal processing to understand what’s going on and to decide whether to administer medications or not. I started my own asthma company, then I realized that a guy in Israel started a company and had many patents on that. I joined him and we started something together.
[2:28] The second one had to do with ultrasound, or with sonar where we were able to improve sonar resolution. That was a company that was started in the States. The first, the asthma company, is actually a public company, still alive.
Steve: [2:44] What’s your favorite part or favorite stage of a company, having built something from scratch now?
Nathan: [2:52] My favorite stage is when people say that it’s impossible to do, where I see the solution very clearly and then when they changed their look on their face when they see that it works.
Steve: [3:05] You’ve been studying the brain for a long time, been obsessed with it, if you will. Now, looking back 20, 25 years, were the tools rudimentary compared it today. I want to get a little bit of context for what the world was like 20, 25 years ago, with what you had at your disposal, to transition into a little bit of where we are today.
Nathan: [3:24] The bad news is that we haven’t progress really much. We’ve found a lot of research, a lot of papers were published, but in fact if we go back 70 years ago when Hubel and Wiesel started in the mid‑’40s, that really started this field, we did not progress much from there.
[3:49] They try to define what the synaptic role, the change in a single synapse is. There were few Nobel Prize winners as a result of that, but still scientist did not agree on what a single synapse in a single neuron is doing in the brain. We haven’t really progressed on that.
[4:11] However, on the whole using functional MRI, we did progress in understanding more functional networks in the brain, connectivity between networks, et cetera.
Steve: [4:23] Do you think with the context for that, over the last 25 years, does the next 25 years look different? Do we make more progress than we made over the last 25 years?
Nathan: [4:33] I believe so. I believe sensors are getting better, and smaller, and they will enter the brain more than before. Electronics is getting more sensitive, even if the sensors do not get inside the brain it’s going to be possible to measure outside of the brain more activity.
[4:54] We’re understanding functional MRI, we’re understanding all sort of things that can be done with MRI, which is magnetic resonance with MEG, which is also magnetic encephalograph, and with EEG which is really what I’m trying to develop.
[5:11] Signal processing is finally entering into the field, and I believe that it will move the field forward.
Steve: [5:18] Did you think we would be further along, when you look back, and you think about where we would be in 2015?
Nathan: [5:24] I actually thought we would be much further than where we are.
Steve: [5:27] You did?
Nathan: [5:27] Yes.
Steve: [5:30] You’re doing the new business, a new start up, using…Obviously, almost everything you’ve done, up until now, is practice for what you’re going to do. Tell us a little bit about Neurosteer, and the new business that you’ve…
Nathan: [5:40] I understood that we’re not really monitoring the brain, our most important organ. We’re not monitoring it, and we are administering medication without reading…
Steve: [5:52] Please be specific when we say “not monitoring.” I want to go back to that.
Nathan: [5:54] I’ll explain that. For example I spoke with a young girl who said, “I haven’t had an epilepsy seizure for the last year but I’m still taking my medication every day.” This is really an indication that maybe he doesn’t need to take his medication. And if there was a way to monitor and see if there’s still abnormality in his brain which requires the medication, good. But maybe not.
[6:21] This is an example. We are not monitoring mood, we are not monitoring attention. We are looking at people, we are trying to talk to them, we are trying to assess their brain condition…
Steve: [6:32] At moments in time, but not continuously.
Nathan: [6:35] Well, not continuously and not objectively. When a person comes to the hospital and says, “Maybe I had a heart attack,” we would do an enzyme test to decide if there was damage to the muscle or not. There’s nothing like that to the brain.
Steve: [6:50] What is Neurosteer going to do to change that?
Nathan: [6:53] Neurosteer is developing a portable, mobile, and very easy to use EEG based on only two electrodes. And with only two electrodes it’s trying to extract a very large amount of information of brain activity or brain states and enable monitoring, if needed, all the time.
Steve: [7:12] And this is going to be a hat or a patch or…?
Nathan: [7:16] It will be a patch, a little patch, on the forehead that, hopefully, within a couple of years will be see‑through and very easy to put. Will talk to your phone, which will load the data to the Cloud and, from there be analyzed via a simple API. High level information about what’s going on in the brain will be sent to whoever needs it.
Steve: [7:42] What does the world look like five or ten years from now when Neurosteer’s out in the market and everyone’s using it?
Nathan: [7:49] Well, the idea of monitoring is only half of the story because the brain’s very elastic, plastic, and can be modified even at every age. The whole idea of monitoring is actually administering some kind of treatment, some kind of neural feedback, which will then alter the brain and bring it to a better state.
[8:13] My hope is that it’s going to be less usage of medications and better feedback which will alter the brain. That feedback is going to be done via computer games or fun things. It’s not going to be something that will look like a medical treatment.
Steve: [8:34] When you think about what you’re going to do this time, perhaps differently than you did last time, is there anything that comes to mind that, now that you’ve done this before, that you’re going to make sure you do it to start up?
Nathan: [8:47] Taking the medical path is very painful, very difficult for various reasons. Fortunately, now with this kind of monitoring, or this kind of science, it is possible to go in that gray area of the lifestyle and not fully medical. We will take that lifestyle and gray area path for as long as we can until we build a lot of information that will enable us to persuade whoever needs to be persuaded. Which is, first of course, the FDA, but then the insurance companies and the medical community, that we have something very, very powerful that they need to use.
Steve: [9:29] Could this company have existed five years ago or ten years ago?
Nathan: [9:35] I don’t think so. The sensor industry has actually improved, the electronics went down. What is being sold now is instrumentation amplifier for one dollar, used to be a huge box which was very expensive. Several years ago, A2Ds were more expensive, of course bluetooth communication did not exist. None of that really existed. I’m not talking about the sensors which now can be woven into textile and so forth.
Steve: [10:09] Do you think this becomes, for you, your full time focus, or do you continue teaching and doing other things while building this business?
Nathan: [10:17] I see myself devoting the next three years, full time, for the company. Then getting it to go more into the marketing path. Hopefully, reducing the technological risk to the point where it’s rolling on its own and then just stirring it a little bit as needed.
Steve: [10:38] Got you. You were teaching full time at Tel Aviv University. Did you take some time off to doing that?
Nathan: [10:46] Exactly.
Steve: [10:47] From your perspective, what else do you need to do? Who else do you need to put into your team to come around to what you focus on versus what some of the other folks need to focus on to make this work?
Nathan: [10:57] Well, we have the technology. What we need is real good business development that we’re going to bring right at the beginning, because approaching the market is non‑trivial. It’s very sophisticated, and I would like to bring someone who is knowledgeable in business development as I’m knowledgeable in signal processing. I don’t have that knowledge. I do it every once in a while if I have to, but I’m really not good at…
Steve: [11:25] You just play one on TV. You are going to do this from here, from the States, or from Israel?
Nathan: [11:30] It will be done from both.
Steve: [11:32] From both, technology in Israel and business here?
Nathan: [11:35] Yeah.
Steve: [11:36] It’s interesting these incredible technologies and technologists in Israel. From a commercialization standpoint, and from the business standpoint obviously, the best of both worlds kind of bridging both. Were the other business also both in Israel and in the US?
Nathan: [11:53] The asthma business was actually in Tel Aviv and in Australia, in Melbourne. Because asthma in Australia is very high, so the investors came from Australia, but it makes sense to develop and do the clinical studies in Israel. Clinical studies in Israel can be used for FDA approval here.
Steve: [12:12] What are you teaching at Tel Aviv University?
Nathan: [12:14] Computer science and neural computation.
Steve: [12:19] Have you seen a difference in the students on the last 5, 10, 15, 20 years in terms of their penchant for entrepreneurship or getting involved in start‑ups, and how do you think these students themselves have changed over there the time you’ve been there?
Nathan: [12:35] I see amazing students. I’ve really seen amazing students. Those who were chosen at hackathons for high schoolers and very young students. They were kids of 17‑year‑old with seven years of experience, really amazing. You can see them performing and you can see that they really know exactly what they are doing. I’m actually excited about this young generation. They were exposed to much more than a generation ago, and those who are very curious can really take it very, very far.
Steve: [13:11] You spent the day at the Wearable Tech and Digital Health Conference here. What did you see that you didn’t know before you walk in here this morning?
Nathan: [13:19] Well, I’m following MC10, for example, for the last two and half years. I feel that they have an amazing technology, and I really wanted to bring them here. There was more technology of that caliber. That technology which analyses sweat in a very sophisticated way, so there were some technology. The panel about investment was very interested. I definitely learned something.
Steve: [13:46] Our biggest insight as you kind of wrap up the day, and we’ve just finished your presentation, but love to hear your thoughts at end of the day.
Nathan: [13:55] I believe that this is a very good time to get into this field. There’s a very big interest in this wearable technology. The brain is receiving more and more attention. People understand what is. We understand the kidneys. We understand the heart. We understand the glucose to a point where we can really manage those diseases, but we are very far on trying to help the brain. The problem of attention deficit, and what not, is actually just growing, and this is really the right time to do it technology wise and marketing wise.
Steve: [14:33] When we come back to this conference in 2020, what’s changed?
Nathan: [14:41] I believe that a lot of people will be connected, just like they are connected now, to their phones. I don’t want to say to their computers because that’s really passe, but connected to their phones. A lot of people will be connected through their brain to the Internet for various reasons, really for very different reasons.
Steve: [15:00] You think in five years?
Nathan: [15:03] Maybe five, maybe ten years. In five years, there will be the early adapters, which will be more of people with some kind of disabilities or some kind of brain disorder, yes.
Steve: [15:14] And ten years, definitely?
Nathan: [15:15] Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that we should be able to read everything about the brain. That doesn’t mean that we should know everything that is happening there, but we will know much about brain states, and be able to then manage these things and actually manage our brain more efficiently.
Steve: [15:36] The early adopters, those with chronic diseases or brain injury, kind of getting it first. 10, 15, 20 years, does it go invisible and just inside and implanted, or where do you think this is all plays out really longer term?
Nathan: [15:52] I’m hoping that in twenty years, we’ll understand the brain better. We will have machines that will have real intelligence. Not just being able to learn from past effect and building model, but really build intelligence and have the deduction capabilities that humans have, or brains not just for humans, but animals. That those machines will actually be used to help the brain function better as opposed to replace the brain. I believe that there’s a lot of room for brain computer interface to improve, enhance the brain for healthy people and definitely for those with disabilities.
Steve: [16:40] All right, so we are going to turn to personally for a few minutes. What do you do for fun?
Nathan: [16:47] I like to do sports. I like to run. I used to do karate, martial arts. I like to listen to classical music, this is kind of cools me down the most. I like to stroll in New York. Walk on river is always fun for me.
Steve: [17:06] What a beautiful view at where we are right now. What are you reading right now? What book?
Nathan: [17:14] Well, that’s actually a book in Hebrew, so I don’t think that is going to help you. Maybe, it’s been translated already. This is a historian that is producing amazing perspectives about the future based on history.
Steve: [17:31] What the book called?
Nathan: [17:35] It’s called “The World of Yesterday” or something. I’m translated from Hebrew, but I’m sure that it will be translated…
Steve: [17:46] We’ll see if we can get a link and put it on the podcast.
Nathan: [17:50] I’m not sure if this the best translation but …
Steve: [17:53] Who has the biggest influence on you in your life?
Nathan: [17:59] I was very fortunate to do my PhD with a person who got his Nobel Prize on his PhD thesis, which is not something that happens often. I met him when he switched from regular physics into trying to understand the brain. His insight with an amazing background in physics, was very influential.
[18:27] I learned how to deduct, how to perform analysis of facts in a very nice way, and how to be relaxed and enjoy life at the same time. He was one influence, my father was definitely a strong…
Steve: [18:43] What was his name?
Nathan: [18:45] Leon Cooper, from Providence, from Brown University. He received his Nobel Prize on what’s called super conductivity. Cooper, of course, with Bardeen and Shockley who were the only ones who got two Nobel Prizes in physics. They invented the transistor. I was really fortunate to be there with him.
[19:05] My father definitely influenced my life, he was a very hard worker who understood that you can be bright, but you need also to work very hard. Never complained. I learnt a lot from him.
Steve: [19:21] That’s fantastic. Wrap up question, we call the entrepreneurs who are transforming health care, health care transformers. If you could have one super power, what would it be as a health care transformer?
Nathan: [19:35] Really help us function with our brain at a much, much higher level, for those who feel they cannot function, they cannot concentrate, they cannot think clearly. They are very strongly affected by their emotions, like trauma people really cannot think clearly. Help us with that, so that we shall be more relaxed on one hand, and much more productive.
Steve: [20:02] If you could have one super power what would it be?
Nathan: [20:09] I’d like to help the world, it would be something that would really…
Steve: [20:13] Seems like you’re already doing that.
Nathan: [20:15] It would be something that would really leave this world better after I leave. That’s all I want.
Steve: [20:18] Fantastic. Thanks so much for spending time and it was a long day, but really appreciate…
Nathan: [20:21] My pleasure.
Steve: [20:23] Look forward to seeing Neurosteer come alive, make a change and make that impact on the world that you’re talking about.
Nathan: [20:29] Thank you so much.
Steve: [20:30] Thank you so much.
Nathan: [20:31] Goodbye.
Steve: [20:31] Take care.