The Latest Globe Column: What Happened to Cyberkinetics
Tim Surgenor decided to take the job running a small start-up company when he saw the rhesus monkeys playing video games at a Brown University lab.
The monkeys could not only use a joystick to play a pinball-like game, but also control the action on the screen just by thinking. An array of electrodes affixed to their brains eavesdropped on a cluster of about 30 neurons and instantly interpreted what the monkeys intended to do. It was perhaps the most sophisticated interface between a living brain and a computer yet developed.
"I thought that it was an incredible technology that really needed to be moved forward," recalls Surgenor, who had been an executive at Haemonetics Corp. and Genzyme Corp.
In 2003, Surgenor became chief executive of Cyberkinetics Inc., helping the company raise more than $40 million, go public, and shepherd the technology he'd seen into human testing. Just last month, he finished shutting down the company, selling off the last of its assets to another local neurotechnology company for $350,000.
What happened in the intervening six years offers a glimpse of how challenging it can be even for a well-funded start-up to bring a breakthrough technology to market - especially in the regulated world of medical devices.