In Part 4 of our series mapping the European startups challenging Elon Musk’s empire, we look at those which are trying to go as far or beyond the feats of Neuralink. Part 1 is about cars, Part 2 is about the hyperloop, Part 3 is about space tech, and Part 5 explores ways to overcome a fragmented Europe.
This summer Elon Musk wowed the world when he appeared onstage with Gertrude, a pig with a coin-sized computer chip in her skull connecting her brain to a computer.
Leading the snorting animal around a pen, Musk said it was a landmark moment in the quest by his company, Neuralink, to give humans "superhuman cognition" and control machines with their minds.
The press coverage of the event — which featured a compelling mix of cute animals, sci-fi technology and Musk in hyperbolic-statement overdrive — was lavishly covered in the press from the New York Times to Le Monde and the FT.
What nobody mentioned, however, was that a little British company called BIOS is doing pretty much the same thing as Neuralink — only in many respects better.
And it’s not just it. Other European companies such as the German CereGate and Swiss Mindmaze are outclassing Neuralink in core areas, such as understanding the language of the nervous system and helping people who suffer from neurological disorders. They just lack the marketing might (and financial firepower) of Musk.
North America and Europe are currently global leaders in neurotechnology thanks to their technological infrastructure and world-leading research facilities, according to a recent report.
Universities such as Karolinska in Stockholm, Cambridge in the UK and the University of Freiburg in Germany have all fostered neurotechnology startups, and while Neuralink has capital and press attention others can only dream of, an increasing amount of investment is heading towards European neurotechnology startups. In the last few months alone, Italian startup Wise closed a €15m round, Dutch neurostimulation company Salvia Bioelectronics raised €26m and German startup CereGate closed an undisclosed Series A round.
In fact, Europe has a long tradition of biohacking and connecting machines to humans going back to the 1990s.
We are a bit like Linux if Elon Musk is Microsoft.
British university professor Dr Kevin Warwick (known as “Captain Cyborg”) has been implanting all kinds of electronics in his body since the 90s, while Spain’s Neil Harbisson, now living in New York, is the first person to have an antenna brain implant and to be recognised by the government as a ‘cyborg’.
In Sweden, there are 3,500 people (including the author of this piece) today walking around with a microchip injected with a kind of syringe under the skin in their hand. The chip can be used to open doors to some coworking spaces and gyms in the city (although not that many).
Thanks in part to this tradition, European startups are leading the way in driving humanity to a future where it can connect to machines. But just like Europe’s endeavours in space, batteries, electric cars and the hyperloop, not enough people know about it.
Musk may have put a top-notch hardware implant in a pig — but he didn’t mention plans for clinical trials on humans during the event earlier this year, which some expected. BIOS, however, is about to embark on human trials next year.
The startup aims to treat diseases, for which we don’t currently have effective drugs, by rewiring the brain. Part of the problem with conditions such as heart failure, arthritis, diabetes and Crohn’s disease is that the signals between the brain and diseased organs are failing. By fixing this could dramatically improve the health and wellbeing of patients.
But being able to understand the complex neural codes that connect the brain with organs — and to rewire them — is more complex than what Neuralink has been able to show so far.
“We are a bit like Linux if Elon Musk is Microsoft,” the cofounder Emil Hewage tells Sifted.
Like Neuralink, BIOS has developed its own implant but is focusing on the data that is extracted from it more instead of making the hardware less clunky.
The company was founded by the computer neuroscientist Hewage and the bioengineer Oliver Armitage in Cambridge in 2015 as a way to commercialise all the science that had been achieved in the field in the last 20 years. When it took part in the Y Combinator programme in 2017, BIOS could already show a neural implant in a pig.
“We had managed to run our company on £100,000 for two years by then. By running three months worth of data we could show the exact same technology as Neuralink has had four years and $100m to develop – that is kind of ridiculous,” Hewage says.
The nervous system is very noisy; there are trillions of neurons in our body and they're all firing at the same time. But once you can find that code and edit that code, the possibilities are enormous.
Since that first investment, BIOS has raised approximately €7.5m in total. And, with a team of 36, the company has collected a massive amount of data to run through its AI system and has also done some recent breakthroughs when it comes to translating the language of the nervous system.
“Every single person at every single point in time has an incredibly different neural code. But at a very high level, we can use AI and big data techniques to find the underlying languages. What we have done is pioneered the ability to find a repeatable code, particularly in these more basic pathways first,” Hewage says.
In comparison to Musk’s approach to media, BIOS’ founders are secretive about the clinical trials planned for next year but hope that in the end, its code will be used to either reprogram existing implants on the market or provide its own implant. This is ahead of Neuralink.
“In many ways, the nervous system is significantly more complicated than the genome or the immune system. [It’s] very noisy; there are trillions of neurons in our body and they're all firing at the same time,” Hewage tells Sifted. “But once you can find that code and edit that code, the possibilities are enormous.”
In any branch of computing, it is ultimately the software that can make more difference than the hardware. This is where Munich-based startup CereGate has an advantage.
Unlike BIOS, CereGate has not created its own hardware — instead, it is focused on “mind writing” into today's conventional brain implants, common in people with Parkinson’s. Its software-based interface is developed to improve the treatment of devices that are already on the market or soon to be launched.
CereGate’s first software product is used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s and will make the implants less glitchy and more personalised for the user. Parkinson’s is just the first solution, more is to come.
By running three months worth of data we could show the exact same technology as Neuralink has had four years and $100m to develop.
In just one year, the startup has completed a proof of concept study with about 15 people.
In September this year, CereGate raised its Series A funding round (an undisclosed amount) led by venture capital company Heal Capital and existing investors High-Tech Gründerfonds and TruVenturo.
“Our investment in CereGate is not a hardware game, it’s a software game. And that's why we believe the cycle of innovation might be a lot shorter, and a lot more iterative. And therefore, basically, jumping ahead faster than one could expect, which I think is really interesting,” says Eckardt Weber, general partner at Heal Capital.
Fitbit for the brain
Weber assessed much of the neurotechnology sector, both in Europe and beyond, before investing in CereGate.
He believes that treating neurological disorders will require implants into the brain — rather than just non-invasive technologies that sit on top of it.
“We had the feeling that to apply your solution to neurological disorders, you would have to go invasive,” he says. But the next generation of hardware will take a lot of time, money and clinical trials to develop — and that’s not a game his VC fund wants to play. “Given the capital intensity of the development, we said we don't want to be involved in developing the hardware.”
As such, the ‘Fitbit for the brain’ may not be something that we will see within the next few years.
“I think the first step will probably be neurological disorders, but it is probably at least five, maybe 10 years until we enter the stage where healthy humans are enhancing ourselves via, let's say, the Fitbit for the brain,” Weber says.
If anyone can create that, he adds, it is likely to be Musk. But in the meantime, brain software companies like CereGate can already design treatments that improve people’s lives.
Why not keep to the non-invasive solutions?
Neurological and psychiatric illnesses represent a large and quickly growing unmet medical market. Neurotechnology is still a nascent sector, but the global market for therapeutics covering the brain and spinal cord is expected to almost reach $130bn by 2025.
The majority of companies that are already chipping away at it are not the ones with implants but the ones that only work above skin-level.
One of Europe’s biggest companies within this space is the Swiss company Mindmaze, founded in 2012. To date, it has attracted over €100m in grants and investments and has attracted unlikely angel investors such as Leonardo DiCaprio.
Unlike Neuralink, BIOS and CereGate, Mindmaze has developed a range of non-invasive solutions which use neuroscience to maximise the recovery of patients with debilitating neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, as well as stroke and dementia, without needing to go inside the brain to work.
We have now used MindMaze’s solutions for various clinical indications in many countries. Neuralink has not been used for anything, clinical or otherwise
According to Mindmaze’s medical and scientific officer John Krakauer, people are unaware that non-invasive solutions already have the potential to help people with the conditions Neuralink says its technology will treat in the future.
“External technology-enhanced behavioural interventions are still in their infancy. Until one can claim that for the same condition, invasive is going to be much better in terms of effect size, then why go to the trouble?” Krakauer tells Sifted.
We have now used MindMaze’s solutions for various clinical indications in many countries. Neuralink has not been used for anything, clinical or otherwise, thus far.”
Krakauer, based at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is however impressed by some invasive technological approaches, which have already shown efficacy in deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease and epidural stimulation for spinal cord injury.
“Ultimately I think care will be optimised by combining them [invasive and non-invasive]. But we must not let the cool factor of invasive brain recording and stimulation lead to premature use of such technology,” Krakauer says.
From countering the risk of AI to controlling machines
Weber at Heal Capital, however, thinks the hype is mostly a good thing: “It's good for the overall segment and market that people get to understand what kind of possibilities and innovation is out there. Elon Musk is maybe necessary for the industry to show what can be done.”
When Musk announced in 2017 that his new brain-computer interface company Neuralink would work to fuse the human nervous system and machine intelligence to counter the risk of runaway artificial intelligence, many thought of it as fiction. And as far as Musk’s projects go, this one was probably even crazier than building space rockets from scratch.
Nowadays, the brain computer interface is rarely mentioned when talking about countering the risk of AI. But if you are looking for technology to do this, the answer could come from the French startup NextMind.
The startup is using the same technology as its healthtech focused counterparts but is allowing people to command machines by using their thoughts. The AI-based brain computer interface, that sits on the back of the user’s head, has not been created for people with disabilities but as a product for the mass market.
The company has recently launched a development kit for virtual and augmented reality companies to use.
As a first step, it makes it possible to control games and computer software with your gaze. But according to the company it is not an eye tracker as such but will actually be able to be used with your eyes closed in the future. Instead it understands which objects you want to move.
The next step could almost be something pretty impressive – it will be able to decode visual imagination, such as those appearing in your memories, dreams and your imagination, according to the company.
Mimi Billing is Sifted’s Nordic correspondent. She also covers healthtech, and tweets from @MimiBilling
Invasive European neurotechnology startups
Total funding: €11m
Investors: Atlas Venture, Atlante Ventures, Innogest Capital, Omnes Venture Capital, Indaco SGR
---German company CorTec is one of the older companies on our list and has also created a hardware and a closed-loop system. For the founder of CorTec, Jörn Rickert, it is also important to show how the company differs from Neuralink.“Unlike our US competitor Neuralink, we do not insert electrodes into the brain, but instead use silicon films with platinum-iridium contacts that are on the surface of the brain or nerves. They measure the electrical currents of the nerves and can stimulate them electrically,” he told Wirtschafts Woche at the beginning of September.“In this way, paraplegics could walk again in the future, and depression, high blood pressure, diabetes and strokes could be better treated.”Founded: 2011 in Freiberg, Germany
Total funding: €18m
Investors: Santo Venture Capital, LBBW Venture Capital, High-Tech Gründerfonds
---The UK startup BIOS has developed its own implant and is working on the software components. Back in 2017, it had already put an implant in a pig and was collecting data from it.Although it has its own hardware, it is focused on analysing the data it is building up and is on the path to decoding the language of our nervous system.Founded: 2015 in Cambridge, UK
Total funding: €7.5m
Investors: MassChallenge, Y Combinator, Innovate UK, K5 Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Ariel Poler, Charlie Songhurst, Heuristic Capital, Real Ventures
Non-invasive European neurotechnology startups
Total funding: >€100m
Investors: Hinduja Group, Leonardo DiCaprio and Eurostars SME programme
---Irish Neurovalens has developed a headset that aims to treat health issues by influencing the brain and nervous system using non-invasive technology. It aims to replace drugs as the first-line treatments for obesity, diabetes, insomnia and anxiety.It combines neuroscience with technology to stimulate the brain’s hypothalamus, which has a vital role in functions such as releasing hormones and controlling appetite. The company has had good traction this year, with three products moving into phase three clinical trials.Founded: 2013 in Belfast, Ireland
Total funding: €16m
Investors: Clarendon Fund Managers Limited, IQ Capital, Angel CoFund, Future Fund, Wharton Asset Management,TechStart Ventures
---The Israeli startup BrainQ’s medical device uses non-invasive, frequency-tuned, extremely low frequency and low-intensity electromagnetic fields with the aim of promoting neurological recovery in the central nervous system.Whereas many competitors are focused on specific brain regions or segments of the nervous system, BrainQ covers the whole system with its pretty bulky piece of equipment placed on head and shoulders. With the help of AI the therapy is aimed at reducing disability following stroke and other neurodisorders.Founded: 2011 in Jerusalem, Israel
Total funding: €25.4m
Investors: Our Crowd, IT-Farm, Norma Investments, Qure Ventures, Amir Gross,
European Innovation Council