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Khosla-Backed Startup Wants to Electrify Your Brain

Brain
Oliver Burston | Ikon Images | Getty Images

A Los Gatos, Calif., startup is developing a wearable that promises to alter state of mind by sending ultrasonic or fine electric currents through the brain, building a consumer product on top of a nascent area of neuroscience.

Thync, which has been operating in stealth mode for the last three years, will announce on Wednesday that it has raised $13 million from Khosla Ventures, Sling Media co-founder Blake Krikorian and other undisclosed investors.

The company isn't yet providing images or many details about the product itself, which isn't expected to reach the market until next year. But it says its "neurosignaling algorithms" can help people feel calm or energized.

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"We're not wired to call up our best focus, energy and self control at will, but we know we have them inside us," Chief Executive Isy Goldwasser said in an interview. "The power of neuroscience and neurosignaling is, we can access the pathways and regions that trigger those modes."

There is a growing body of scientific literature exploring the possibilities of brain stimulation for improving cognition, treating depression and much more, with some positive results. There's also a budding DIY movement that relies on components from Radio Shack.

But some researchers have warned that bigger and better studies are required to understand the mechanisms at play as well as the possible risks. A Wired story on the subject earlier this year pointed out that one study suggested improvements in one area could come at the cost of other cognitive functions.

Colleen Proppe | Moment Mobile | Getty Images

Goldwasser, previously an entrepreneur-in-residence at Khosla, doesn't disagree that more research is needed. But he said it's already under way at Thync, which has been conducting a series of IRB-approved studies involving more than 2,000 participants.

"What we're talking about is way beyond what is published in the literature by academic researchers," he said.

The company's founding team includes two neuroscientists who did postdoctoral work at Harvard: Co-founder William Tyler, an associate professor at Arizona State University, and Sumon Pal, who was previously the chief technology officer at SynSonix and now runs Thync's Boston office.

The company has been in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration about the forthcoming product since last year. Goldwasser said they intend to follow whatever guidelines and requirements the FDA issues, but added that he expects the product will fall on the lighter side in the regulatory scrutiny spectrum.

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In part that's because the company isn't making overt medical claims — like, say, curing brain cancer. Matters like energy, focus and calm may fall just shy of the thin line between "wellness" gadgets and medical devices, a boundary other consumer wearable startups have been testing.

But even if there isn't an efficacy issue, what about safety?

The argument can be made — and so I made it to Goldwasser — that testing the device a handful of times on a few thousand test participants doesn't necessarily tell us about the impact of repeated electrical brain stimulations over months and years.

Goldwasser replied that the energy levels in question fall below those of physical therapy and cosmetic products already on the market.

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"I can tell you that the FDA, based on conversations with us, isn't taking your view that this requires a prolonged process," he said.

The company is pitching the product as an alternative to today's mood-altering industries, including caffeine, energy drinks and alcohol. (A few other products come to mind too, but they're only legal in a few states.)

"It's just about ways to shift into a better state of mind," Goldwasser said.

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