Brain-Computer Interfacing: My Story on Entering this Exciting Field

Nick Halper
8 min readAug 4, 2021
Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Baby Legs

My mother is an amputee.

Well, sort of.

Before she was even born, her umbilical cord wrapped around her leg, cutting off the blood supply. This defect left her with an underdeveloped and under-functioning leg. She was missing most pieces of her foot and ankle, so the doctor that delivered her, her father, had to make a difficult decision: leave her with a leg that could never bear weight nor let her walk normally or amputate it.

He decided to amputate his newborn’s leg.

So, as she learned to walk and crawl, she had a prosthetic. Being a developing child, she quickly outgrew her semi-custom legs, swapping them for new ones. She didn’t let her condition slow her down, and neither did her dad, who was constantly introducing her to new activities that challenged the limits of a lower limb amputee. She went skiing, played tennis, and took part in the yearly family waterskiing trip where she found that her leg kept getting pulled off by the current when she tried to ski. While I’ll never be able to shake the thought of a prosthetic leg just floating around in the lake by our house, she quickly solved that problem too…by removing it completely. Yep, she skied one-footed.

Similarly, when she learned to drive, she skipped getting the handicap sticker that was offered; she just didn’t see herself that way. All in all, she led a normal life that was mostly unimpeded by her missing leg. In her 20’s, she became a nurse, got married, and had me.

I was the curious type. My father owned a business that repaired vending machines, so our dining table was often a mess of coin mechanisms, keypads, and servo motors. One of my favorite activities as a kid was taking them apart and putting them back together again. I can remember my parents setting me up a TV tray in the living room that served as my own little workbench. I’d sit there for hours studying the coin mechanisms trying to figure out how they worked, getting my fingers stuck in release mechanisms along the way.

With my mom being a nurse and her dad being a doctor, I had a lot of exposure to the medical field. My family was paid to clean my grandfather’s private practice office, so I was constantly getting to play with medical equipment. In between getting yelled at for going into the X-ray room and pretending the speculum was a talking bird, I got to learn about all the instruments used in practice. After years of hearing about bone screws, watching my mom oil her mechanical leg joints, and racing through the office using crutches to pretend I was some long-legged beast, it was natural that I started to see the human body in a mechanical way.

But a new lesson was about to take that concept a lot further.

Of Neurons and Motors and Motor Neurons

I had an extremely privileged childhood: my parents read to me every night. My book of choice: the encyclopedia. I got lost in the lists of facts about space, frogs, and far away places. Those nightly readings taught me some awesome things, but the most shocking discovery (pun intended) was learning about the nervous system.

In the simple terms of my child-targeted encyclopedia, I learned that the brain controls your arms and legs using electricity sent through your nerves.

A lightbulb went on.

My mom has this artificial limb, but it doesn’t move; it has no joints. A servo motor does move; it uses electricity. My brain makes electricity, and it’s in my arms and my legs. If you cut open a limb, then you could see those nerves and connect them to the motor. Boom! Robotic leg! I was certain I was a genius. I had solved it!

I ran to my mom to tell her the good news. My parents didn’t coddle. “It’s harder than that,” they said. Through middle school and high school, I learned just how much harder it might be. In college, I went after neuroscience. I was the first graduating class (six people total) with this new type of degree.

Now instead of learning how hard it was to accomplish this, I was developing ideas for how it might be done. More importantly, I started learning about people who were facing this challenge head-on.

Pioneers

It was around this time that the results from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Revolutionizing Prosthetics program were starting to be published. I watched as scientists churned out publications with implanted microelectrode arrays and bionic arms. What’s more, this research was happening in my backyard. The company making these neural interfaces, Blackrock, was just down the street! A major study site was where I was currently doing research. It was a dream come true!

At the time, neuroscience was new to my school, so I was building my own research path by doing human interface research at one university and growing neural cell cultures at my smaller liberal arts college. An increasing interest in neuroscience brought more students and more funding, and I worked with my advisors to start up a new electroencephalography lab. I taught myself the basic programming required to get it up and running, managed the equipment, and taught others how to use it, becoming lab manager in the process.

Desperate to get involved with the work going on from the brain-computer interface company, I began applying. They had no internship program and no open positions, but I brought in my resume, saying I’d work free in any area they saw fit, including coffee runner.

No response.

So I joined another company doing genetic testing for pathogens, and sent in another resume, offering to work free of charge.

No response.

Then, a year later, Blackrock posted a position. One that I was probably unqualified for. I applied. After interviewing with 7 different people, I somehow got in.

Blackrock

The next year was a blur of learning, teaching myself various methods of programming, memorizing equipment specs, grasping the ins and outs of basic neurosurgery, reading schematics, and learning whole new sets of systems and software. Most importantly, though, my position had me working with customers.

For the next seven years, I was in academic labs, hospital surgical suites, and other private research organizations on a nearly daily basis. This time spent in the field gave me a birds-eye view of the brain-computer interface industry. I got to see the movement of technology and ideas from lab concepts with lab rats into fully formed neuroprosthetics built for veterans.

The pace of the field was astounding, and Blackrock’s role was central. Yet, I always felt just a little bit removed from the action. See, companies like Blackrock are primarily tool makers. We built amazing devices for researchers and physicians. They would integrate them into neuroprosthetics projects, decoding the signals we made available and communicating the results to a robotic arm provided by somebody else.

I wanted to be one step closer. I wanted to help build the whole system.

So I left.

I quit my job as a product manager at a brain-computer interface company one week before the US went into lockdown due to an impending pandemic.

New Horizons

I used this time to explore. I wanted to make an impact, I believed the best companies designed whole systems, and I wanted to pursue trends I had identified from my vantage point at Blackrock.

I served as an advisor and consultant to several startups, exploring implantable interfaces for everything from pain management to enhanced creativity to treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

That’s when my old boss, the CEO at Blackrock, made an unexpected connection. He introduced me to an entrepreneur from Europe looking to move on from a successful exit in AI sales software development. He was looking to do something more impactful than sales conversion rates, and he needed a neuroscience partner to do it.

He had a vision. He saw a future where instead of smartphones, we had smartbrains. What is a smartbrain? These are co-processors that enhance cognition and make information available on-demand much like the ‘download a book’ sci-fi future humanity had dreamed of for decades. He saw these devices not as modern conveniences, but as essential tools in upgrading our brains to solve humanity’s greatest challenges today. See, our brain hasn’t changed much since it was optimized to rule the savannah in our hunter-gatherer society, yet today we occupy vast digital spaces with networks of hundreds or thousands of people and information comes at an ever-increasing rate. These tools would bridge that gap.

Intrigued by the mission, we began working together.

The future described above is a distant one, so the question became, how do we get one step closer while helping as many people as possible in the process?

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most expensive disease in the world. It doesn’t just affect individuals, it also devastates families who are forced to serve as caregivers while they watch their loved ones slip away. The numbers are staggering. Approximately 1 in 4 people will die with Alzheimer’s Disease, and it represents a societal cost of nearly 1 Trillion dollars. What’s worse is that these numbers are expected to triple over the next 30 years. Even worse, some pharmaceutical companies were starting to give up on even trying for a treatment. People were losing hope. They needed a new approach.

We saw a bright path. One where the recent research on memory enhancement could be married with decades of experience of neurostimulation for other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. To make this platform would require not just a new electrode, but a new electronics platform as well.

We began building the team. We hired the top electrode, AI, and neuro systems engineers from around the world, straight from the top companies in the space. Top-tier memory scientists, surgeons, and business executives joined our board of advisors. In this case, the pandemic was actually helpful, as people could easily join and jump right into remote work.

And that is where we are today. On the precipice of something amazing, with the best team in the world to do it.

We dream of a world where one doesn’t live in fear of whether they will be the unlucky 25% who loses their mind at the end of life. A world where The 150 Million people with Alzheimer’s in the next 20 years can forget that they have this disease. A world where neurostimulation is a standard of care not just for Alzheimer’s Disease, but as a personalized precision medicine that treats everything from schizophrenia to depression.

That’s the world I hope to help make, and I couldn’t be luckier than to have the chance to be a part of that story.

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Nick Halper

Neurotech Founder| Product Manager | Systems Thinker | Medical Device Developer | Musician | Boardgamer