Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Latest Globe Column: What Happened to Cyberkinetics

My most recent Boston Globe column dives in to the story of Cyberkinetics, a really promising Brown University spin-out that ceased operations earlier this year. Here's the opening:

    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.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

iWalk: Cambridge's quietest start-up?

I'd really heard absolutely nothing about iWalk, a Cambridge start-up that has been around for a couple years now, until I was doing some research for a robotics panel this week at MIT.

One of my panelists was MIT prof Hugh Herr, who also serves as founder and chief scientific officer of iWalk. The company is commercializing a robotic prosthetic device developed in Herr's lab that does the job of a foot and ankle for people who no longer have their own. They call it "PowerFoot One," and according to the Web site:

    "Two powerful microprocessors and six environmental sensors evaluate and adjust ankle position, stiffness, damping and power thousands of times a second. Control algorithms generate human-like force while traversing level ground, slopes and stairs, providing active amputees with near-normal gait and lower energy expenditure compared to state-of-the-art passive prosthetics."

Seed funding for the company came from Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and other angel investors. HBS prof Bill Sahlman serves on iWalk's board.

Herr told me that two years ago, the company raised $5 million from WFD Ventures in New York. Right now, Herr said, iWalk is trying to raise another $7 or $8 million to get the first product finished and ready for sale.

In addition to Herr and CEO Richard Greenwald, the start-up has five employees, I'm told.

More on the technology here.

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