Backstories: Sonera Magnetics

Cyclotron Road’s fellows are creating the future of clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and electronics. In this new series, Backstories, we are tracing the decisions and inflection points that landed them here.

Dominic Labanowski wrote his final high school English thesis in computer programming code. When Nishita Deka was a kid, she was often so engrossed in her studies that her mother would make a plea for her to go out and have fun. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that after they met while pursuing PhDs in electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley, Dominic and Nishita decided to join forces and co-found Sonera Magnetics to do something that’s quite literally cerebral: develop a new type of magnetic sensor to enable brain imaging that is more accessible and more portable than conventional imaging technology.

Magnetic sensors are already used for brain imaging in magnetoencephalograph (MEG) machines, which measure magnetic fields produced by the brain’s electrical activity. But because those signals are so weak relative to the earth’s magnetic field, the sensors must be housed within bulky metal shields, and to ensure accuracy they must be chilled to near absolute zero, making MEG machines stationary and expensive. But Dominic and Nishita are developing a new type of magnetic sensor that will accurately detect and map brain activity without the shielding and cooling requirements of today’s MEG systems, allowing their system to be small enough to embed into a helmet. The near-term application is to make brain imaging accessible to more people. The longer-term application could be to enable brain-computer interfaces.

We talked to the pair, fellows in Cyclotron Road’s Cohort Four, about the decisions and inflection points that led them here.

What were the big turning points in life that directed you here?
[Dominic] Turning my English thesis into a big programming project worked out fine — I got an A — but it also taught me I definitely did not want to do computer science. I realized I kind of hated coding … it’s disconnected from the real world. I decided I wanted to do something that was more physical, and followed real physical rules not manmade ones.

Dominic, on Halloween, 1997.

I was still really interested in computers so I did electrical engineering in undergrad. But that was still so abstracted away from actual physics. It was people saying OK here’s this really complicated physics, we’ll boil it down to something easy — just follow these rules and your stuff will work. So, when I was looking for stuff to fill my time, I started doing undergrad research in physics and I got really fundamental, researching low-temperature semiconductor spin transport (also known as spintronics). Which is something that might be commercially useful in 40 or 50 years.

I eventually decided that was way too far off and too fundamental, and I wanted to do something that was very practical and could see use, but was still very physics-y. I came to Berkeley, also studying electrical engineering, but my project was really on the edge of applied physics. My PhD work was: here’s this cool new physical phenomenon, now do something useful with it. So that’s what I tried to do. Some ideas stuck, some of them didn’t. One of the ones that stuck turned into Sonera Magnetics.

[Nishita] I wanted to be a pediatrician for the longest time but that changed in high school when I realized that even though I was good at it, I didn’t like biology. I liked physics a lot more and had a really great mentor in my high school physics teacher. Then I started doing applied physics research in an optics group in undergrad and that’s how I met another influential mentor, my undergrad advisor, who encouraged me to continue on to grad school to get a Ph.D. But now that I’m saying all this out loud, I think my initial long-term interest in being a pediatrician definitely overlaps with my interest in what we’re doing with Sonera Magnetics in the medical space. I’ve always been interested in improving healthcare in some way and Sonera Magnetics allows me to combine this interest with my technical background.

Nishita with her advisor, Andrea Armani, at USC

In grad school I was doing solo technical work, but I’ve always been drawn to psychology and understanding human nature, which entrepreneurship lets me explore. I would even say that our long-term vision for Sonera Magnetics, to build brain-computer interfaces, also directly relates to my interest in gaining a deeper understanding of human nature because all of that starts with understanding the brain.

Dominic, what other career paths had you considered before this?
So, I went into grad school thinking I would become a professor. After many years of seeing what that life is like I decided that wasn’t really what I wanted. I also worked for a time in a federal lab but that wasn’t the best fit.

Dominic (facing camera) and classmates at Ohio State University.

So, then it was industry or startup. I had a lot of friends who’d gotten Masters degrees and were ahead of me in industry and while it seemed like they liked what they were doing, it didn’t seem like something I would enjoy. So much of what my friends were doing was development, wherein someone has shown that [a new product] is basically working, now they have to knock out the last 5% or get it environmentally reliable. That was never particularly exciting for me.

Nishita, there could be so many different applications for a mobile magnetic sensor capable of brain imaging, well beyond healthcare. What have you thought about those future scenarios and what about Dominic made you think you could confidently cross those bridges together.
For one thing, we’ve been friends for a long time, so we didn’t just come together to start this company and I think that helps a lot in terms of setting a strong foundation for a working relationship. Our values also align really well and I don’t think we’ll be at huge odds around major decisions in the future. And for stuff we do disagree on I could see us being able to talk about them reasonably and come to a logical decision.

Nishita, take us a couple decades into the future to think about how a Sonera Magnetics sensor could impact people’s lives.
Most people know what an EEG is, right? You can make EEG portable today so a lot of people have access to it. In the same way, by making MEG technology portable, more people will be able to access better diagnostics. I think another thing people don’t realize is how much room there is for improvement in today’s imaging techniques. Doctors don’t always know what they’re seeing and that can lead to misdiagnosis or no diagnosis at all. For example, I think a lot of people are familiar with ultrasound, but if you talk to doctors they’ll say ultrasound images aren’t always as useful as people expect because they don’t have very high resolution. And if you do need high resolution, they’ll give you an MRI, but those are really expensive and there is always a long queue for them so you’re not always going to get access to that. So, having easy access to really high-resolution imaging could improve people’s understanding of their own health, a lot.

This is something I actually feel strongly about from personal experience. I have PCOS, which is polycystic ovarian syndrome, but it took years for me to get a diagnosis. At one point I was in the ER and they thought I had appendicitis because of the abdominal pain and were preparing to do surgery. They did so many tests on me but it wasn’t until they did an MRI that they were like OK now it’s pretty obvious that you don’t have appendicitis. But even then, it took years for me to figure out what was going on because anytime I felt something was wrong and needed a test, it was so much trouble to get it done. You usually have to wait until you’re in really severe pain before you get access to high resolution tests. So, I definitely have a personal motivation to make medical imaging better and more accessible.