The brain is the source of human civilization and culture. From the great works of literature and art to spaceships that visit distant planets to complex economic theories, they are all embodiments of the extraordinary capacity of the human brain. The quest to understand how the brain works has fascinated and perplexed humankind for centuries. After all, the brain with its 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections is the most complex entity in the known universe.
This quest also has a second purpose: to alleviate the human suffering inflicted by brain disorders. It is truly a matter of grave concern that while the global economic cost of brain disorders stands at $2.5 trillion, and is projected to rapidly escalate in the coming decades, the development of therapeutics has been at a virtual standstill for the past 20 years. Almost 66% of all molecules that enter phase III clinical trials for neurodrugs fail. Despite intense efforts, there is not a single drug that can reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, much less cure it. This is especially worrisome as the world’s population ages. Similarly, for the millions across the world who suffer from neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, treatments are only partially effective. The root cause for lack of robust therapeutic advances boils down to one factor: our ignorance about how the brain works.
Governments across the world have recognized this problem, and launched efforts to better understand the brain in both health and disease. Most notable among these efforts are the US’s BRAIN Initiative, the EU’s Human Brain Project and Japan’s Brain/Minds Project. The central focus of these global efforts is to decode the language of the brain; the language embedded in patterns of electrical and chemical signals that neuronal ensembles in the brain use for information processing.
Decoding these patterns in the healthy brain, and understanding how they go awry in brain disorders, will have profound implications for the development of next generation brain therapeutics, be they small molecules, biologics or tiny devices called electroceuticals. Like the Apollo Mission, or the Human Genome Project, decoding the language of the brain will require new technologies; specifically, technologies to measure, manipulate, and interpret electrical and chemical neural signals in the brain with exquisite precision, and on a large scale.
This calls for not only transdisciplinary collaboration between neuroscientists, engineers and data scientists, but also unprecedented cooperation between three major stakeholders: governments, research universities and the neurotechnology industry. Today, governments organize and finance these “big neuroscience” initiatives while research universities innovate new disruptive technologies and conduct ground-breaking brain research with them. Unfortunately, the role of the industry in this 21st century grand challenge has remained ambiguous and poorly defined.
Nitin Nohria, the Dean of Harvard Business School, once remarked, “There is no problem facing society and humanity today that can be solved unless business plays a vital role.” I strongly echo his sentiments. As the global brain initiatives have progressed, and as new technologies are coming out of universities and research centres at an accelerating pace, it has become manifestly obvious that disruptive technological innovation is absolutely necessary but completely insufficient to break new ground in brain research.
Technological innovation must be accompanied by robust and rapid dissemination to have a transformative impact on advancing fundamental brain research and in catalysing new approaches for the development of novel therapeutics. It is thus my considered opinion that the neurotechnology industry can play the unique role of integrating the efforts of governments and research universities. The neurotech industry, rather than focusing its resources on in-house revolutionary innovation, should instead use the engine of entrepreneurship to facilitate widespread dissemination of disruptive innovations that are already occurring in research centres. It is the only stakeholder that has both the incentives and the capacity to do so.
There are two major barriers that preclude widespread dissemination of new revolutionary technologies: iterative refinement and cost. The good news is that the neurotechnology industry does not need to reinvent the wheel and can mitigate both by learning from other industries. Take iterative technology refinement. Space X is attempting to revolutionize space exploration, not by inventing rocket technology, but by refining it through the development of reusable rockets. Today, many disruptive neurotechnologies languish in the laboratories that they were invented in; they are not ready for primetime, and need to be optimized and integrated as part of solutions for solving specific research questions. Technology innovators at universities are not incentivized to conduct iterative refinement or integration. It is here that the neurotechnology industry can apply industrial engineering principles, and play a pivotal and valuable role in migration of the technology from the innovators laboratory into the broader field.
When it comes to reducing the costs associated with new revolutionary technologies, the neurotechnology sector has a lot to learn from the cell phone industry. New state-of-the art neurotechnologies, especially instrumentation, are often expensive, and are limited to a few elite and wealthy laboratories and research institutions. There is thus an urgent need to level the playing field by democratizing access to new neurotechnologies to a wider spectrum of researchers.
The neurotechnology industry must seriously consider the “technology as service” concept, and the subscription-based revenue generation mechanisms that have been central to the near universalization of cell phones in less than two decades. Supplanting the traditional “purchase and ownership” by creative subscription-based mechanisms makes additional sense in this era of rapid and iterative neurotechnology development.
The capacity of the neuroscience research community to absorb new technologies is central to maintaining the need for continual innovation. And, no investigator should be condemned to using obsolete versions of a technology for his research, simply because he paid a hefty price to purchase it in the first place.
These are but two small examples of how entrepreneurial ventures can impact and transform fields even as esoteric as brain research. The quest to understand the human brain will be a defining feature of the 21st century. Now is the time for the neurotechnology industry to rise to the occasion.
Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here
Author: Dr. Kunal Ghosh, CEO, Inscopix
Image: Plaster phrenological models of heads, showing different parts of the brain, are seen at an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London March 27, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Helgren