Andrea Pelayo ( Linkedin ) interviews Ana Maiques, Co-founder of Starlab *
The story goes that the greatest technology companies are based on ideas developed in a garage. Catalan company Starlab (and its spin-off Neuroelectrics), however, have grown out of historical buildings like the Fabra Observatory, where their first headquarters was located. Now, having moved for the third time because they are growing non-stop, they have seen further success in transferring their wireless brain stimulation and reading technology to market. Married couple Ana Maiques and Giulio Ruffini complement each other at the helm of this team of neuroscience pioneers, with support from benchmarks like the Institut Guttman, Harvard and the Boston Children's Hospital in seeking out non-invasive ways to treat diseases of the central nervous system.
What was your aim in creating Starlab?
Starlab began fourteen years ago through a Belgian company that contacted us. When they went bankrupt, we took over the Spanish subsidiary and started working from the Fabra Observatory in 2000 to do good science and make that into marketable products and services by first doing research in aerospace and neuroscience.
Why was it so clear you wanted to transfer your research to market?
We wanted to have an impact on society, to do good and solve problems. Our way of doing this was through science, as it is our passion. I brought the commercial side, while Giulio is a physicist and mathematician. We set up the company to have a positive impact, to change the world. But it’s really difficult to cover the whole chain. We’ve been doing this for 14 years now, a really long time because excelling at everything, at research, transfer and market is a long, complicated learning process. It’s hard for one organization to have all the skills to go from science to market.
So what’s the secret of your success?
From the beginning we knew it was going to take time, but we found a business model that allowed us to make it through the first years that we needed to develop the technology to the point where it was ready for market. I always say that entrepreneurs have to have vision, passion –because believing in what you’re doing helps you overcome the hardships- and, above all, execution, meaning the ability to put a sustained effort into the research until it can be transferred. The secret lies in execution. But also in knowing how to adapt and pivot to go after our goals from different approaches depending on what was going on around us. And the key has been in being very international, selling products abroad and being open to the world.
What have you marketed over these years?
After twelve years of neuroscience research, we had developed two technologies that were mature enough to launch to market. Enobio is a cap with up to 32 non-invasive electrodes that record the wearer’s electroencephalogram, which can be used as a diagnostic tool for patients with epilepsy or sleep disorders. Starstim can not only read but also treat. The electrodes deliver low-voltage current that is practically unnoticeable but stimulates or inhibits brain activity. For example, in the case of a stroke that affects mobility, it would stimulate the motor area of the brain for faster recovery. It’s nice because we already have projects combining both capacities, using Enobio to predict when an epileptic seizure is coming, for example, and then treating it with Starstim.
Who are the clients for these devices?
In Europe we’re certified for clinical use in hospitals, with the noteworthy example of use at Institut Guttmann to treat neuropathic pain in patients with spinal injuries. And Starstim is being used to treat depression by psychiatrists in France. But our clients also include research centers and universities in more than 35 countries. People from MIT and the Media Lab are using it for clinical studies, to help understand how the human brain works.
What hurdles have you faced?
In the United States, there’s a great hurdle for the clinical sector, imposed by the FDA, which is extremely strict. In Taiwan and China it has also been difficult because each country has its own regulations. Working in this sector entails many administrative difficulties.
Has working in the aerospace sector as well helped you overcome the more complicated moments?
Having two areas of research has helped us in the process of developing the technology. Being able to develop it for a large client like the European Space Agency has helped us a lot in doing R&D, but moving into the market stage is more a question of understanding where you can sell now and where you have to wait.
What will the company’s next steps be?
The mission is for our technology to be used by the masses: we’re working with the first doctors and want it to become an at-home treatment, which is now starting to happen. The first home-treatment studies are being carried out in the United States and Europe.
You’re committed to telemedicine.
Telemedicine makes a lot of sense for some conditions. It isn’t the solution to everything but patients with spinal injuries have a lot of trouble getting into centers. It’s an odyssey for them. In other cases, like epilepsy, the seizures don’t happen when patients are in the doctor’s office, they’re unpredictable. So it also makes sense in this case. But no, it’s not for everyone or for everything.
Will your clients continue to be hospitals?
We don’t intend to respond to individual requests. They are medical systems that must be used with a doctor’s prescription in they way they see fit. We get requests from patients who want to buy it and we say no. Little by little, the medical community will also talk more about non-invasive brain stimulation, raising awareness of the topic. But the introduction of new therapies in the world of medicine is always slow.
Have you had to teach your target audience?
We’ve already done the most difficult part: getting in touch with opinion-makers for various conditions. We taught when it was necessary to convince people that our technology is the best on the market.
What are the results of the treatment?
It is most effective in pain, stroke and depression. We don’t yet know if it works with other conditions like some neurodegenerative diseases. We need more evidence but things are changing quickly because research is moving very fast. And also because we work with the best: Institut Guttman, the Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard, which carry out rigorous studies that set opinions when they’re published.
You’ve also just put yourselves on the map in a big way with a telepathy experiment, connecting two brains 7,800 kilometers away from each other.
Carles Grau, Álvaro Pascual-Leone and Giulio Ruffini participated in that paper, which was the ninth most cited of 2014. The experiment in itself wasn’t so revolutionary, but it was the first time two brains communicated at a great distance without sensorial information: no voices, vision, nothing. One of the people was in India with the Enobio cap on, thinking, and the other in Strasbourg receiving the stimulation. The latter saw lights depending on what the former was thinking and received them as a binary code to transmit two words: hello and 'ciao'.
What did you want to achieve?
Beyond the anecdote of being able to connect two brains, the paper demonstrates, more than its telepathic applications, the ability of this technology to read and interact with the brain. We aren’t thinking about it being used as a means of communication in the short term; we apply it to diagnosing diseases. It was a very showy way of demonstrating technological development. We could have done it from a medical standpoint but we chose a more mundane topic that reached a lot more people.
What can we expect from Starlab and Neuroelectrics?
Neuroelectrics may become a leading company in the diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders and diseases of the central nervous system. And Starlab may continue to be a benchmark in neuroscience research and the development of new technology.
And what’s the latest you’re working on?
We were just awarded a project from the Michael J. Fox Foundation based on analyzing data from electroencephalograms to find early markers for diseases like Parkinson. One day it may be possible to put a cap on and see if you’re going to suffer from it, as we do with blood analyses today.
What is your main dream now?
The brain is a great unknown and we don’t fully understand how it works. I imagine, although I don’t know in what timeframe, that our technology could be used by the masses as an indicator of mental health. I’d like to think that electric brain monitoring can become something like taking your blood pressure or going for a routine check up. I think it could happen.
Could the health system afford it?
This technology should fall in price as production volume increases. Cost wouldn’t be an impediment, the most serious problem is the data: what intelligence to take from it and what it is used for. That’s what has to be researched: what conditions and cases would benefit from this brain data. Perhaps it is a routine exam you have to do starting at 50 or 60 to monitor cognitive progress. I don’t know what age limit or for which people it could be used on a mass scale. Science will tell. We ask questions and look for the answers in the data. This technology may prevent the loss of memory or cognitive capacities associated with illnesses like Alzheimer.
* In 2000, Ana Maiques co-founded the neuroscience research company Starlab with her husband, physicist Giulio Ruffini. The spin-off Neuroelectrics, created to market high-tech products including the Enobio and Starstim brain stimulation and reading caps, now sees 50% of its turnover from Europe and 35% from the United States, where they have a subsidiary and collaborate with top-notch world-renowned centers like MIT.