NARRATOR: Welcome to the Neural Implant podcast, where we talk with the people behind the current events and breakthroughs in brain implants and understandable ways helping bring together various fields involved in Euro prosthetics. Here is your host Ladan Jiracek.
HOST: Hello everyone. And welcome to the neural implant podcast. Today’s guest is Ivan. He is from Serbia, and he is a CEO and founder of mBrainTrain, which is a wearable EEG that goes into like an over the ear headphone, kind of like studio headphones. And basically, they do this for research and they use special electrode sites. So, this kind of goes along with some of the episodes we’ve been having recently more about, wearables, and EEG. It’s not implantable technology necessarily, but I think it is important. Again, he talks about this in the beginning that it is something that we have to watch out for because a lot of this technology is more accessible and the implantable technology that’s really only for, patients in the hospital, or will be for some time. So, anyway, hopefully, you enjoy this. Thank you.
HOST: You’re from Serbia, which explains the name. And, you are the CEO and co-founder of mBrainTrain, which is a headphone style EEG enabled research headphone or a headphone that, people can use in consumer space. Do you want to explain this a little bit and why would somebody need an EEG over-the-head headphone?
IVAN: The question has several layers of complexity. You do mostly the invasive ways to record brain activity and these invasive ways are not really suited for everyone and people who are, in my opinion, going to be the first users of such little solutions are people who have some sort of medical condition.
If we retract back to let’s say everyday people, what options do we have to record their brain activity? This brings us to the topic of EEG, like electroencephalography. This technology is used in research, it is used in medical institutions, but why wouldn’t it be used in the everyday life of humans?
Well, it offers a glimpse into how your brain works in everyday conditions, which you do not have from any other technology that exists around us. So, let’s just take an example of your mobile phone. Somebody can see and track your activities, your time to work, your time at work, at the gym, outside, your speed, number of steps… All of this technology cannot tell you really how you feel and how you optimize your mental health and consequentially you cannot tune your mental activity to give you the best results. That’s the short introduction on why we are all living in a society where we want to achieve more and be more productive, but this often leads us to very stressful situations, where actually the distress comes out of this ambition, let’s call it like that, and is actually the thing that prevents us from achieving more.
There is no one, fits-all solutions to that problem. If it was, we would all, you know, just read a book by, you know, Michael Jordan or, Novak Djoković, on how to be our best self, how to be a winner, or how to be in your Zen state. There has never been a time in history where there was more material on how to be productive, how to achieve more, and where the results were ever decreasing as they are now. The reason for this is that every individual is different. And that you have to tune your daily activities and your efforts by yourself and not in some universal way. EEG is one of the rare things that can help you achieve that.
It is known from literature for about a couple of decades, that with more or less success, you could extract mental workloads, or focus, or even to quantify stress from the EEG. This brings me to a very interesting point because, if you read the book by Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow, there are two parts of us as individuals. So there is a living self and the remembering self. So in hindsight, we tend to provide some wrong answers about what really happened to us. If I ask you, for instance, were you happy last week, something that you currently feel may really buy us the answer in some direction. The only way to, you know, go around this is to actually measure how you feel, how you act, how productive you are at the time when it happens.
HOST: And so what kind of aims do you hope to have? I mean, do you want to describe the device you sent me a nice article and I see it in front of me. It is an over the ear headphone that you’d wear to like listen to music and it has some kind of electrodes coming out. So at the top of the head, it has three, and then around the ears, it has three. And then you guys talked about semi-wet electrodes, because of course for EEG you need to have kind of a saline solution to have good contact with the skin. What does that actually mean, semi-wet, and what is the reasoning behind the design of the device?
IVAN: Let’s start with the design of the device. I mentioned that we have a goal to measure your brain activity. Now, traditionally speaking of noninvasive EEG technology that has been achieved by varying a cap with electrodes over your heads. And, as you might guess, this is not the most practical thing to do in everyday situations because of course there is and would be a sort of a social stigma to do it, and the end would not justify the means. So using a headphone is something on the other part of the spectrum. You’re very used to seeing people wearing headphones, and this is what we realized early on and said, okay, it would be great if something that is already accepted, like headphones, could be used to also measure your brain activity in real-time and enable you to use it in real-life situations. So that is like the motivation to go with headphones. As for the electrodes, this is so far up feature. We are a research-oriented company, meaning that we have clients from all over 30 countries and almost all the notable scientific institutions have at least some of our equipment’s in their labs. We also started from this, research strict requirements for data quality. And that indeed brings me to the type of electrodes and the saline contacts that you have to have to have this research-grade signal. However, this is not always going to stay this way. We are working on technology that will enable soon to bring it closer to you or me. Indeed there are electrodes there, on top of the headphone.
So as you said, a couple of contacts there, a couple of contacts around the ears, and these things actually allow you to extract part of the EEG which would otherwise be recorded on the entire head. This actually allows you to have a very good insight into what goes into the brain. And it’s very new. It was just launched last year, but it’s gaining immense popularity with some strong research groups. So as, as you mentioned, I wrote the blog post about it. I hope to have something more to report soon.
HOST: Yeah, it’s very interesting, I mean, this reminds me a lot of a company called Halo Neuroscience and they have kind of a similar product and it’s over the ear headphones and with the kind of like little spikes and they call it the brain stimulator that helps you develop muscle memory faster. It’s more for athletes and everything like this, but I also heard that they stopped selling this or they went under. How was yours different and how, would you prevent, I guess, here at your company from, failing?
IVAN: Interesting question. There are many, many people try something on similar lines. Let’s start with the conceptual difference. You have, the active system in the sense that you have some sort of active stimulation to the brain, right, and you have this passive brain-computer interface approach that we are fond of. Now, I’m not an expert in brain stimulation with either constant current like TDC or DAC, but what I tend to do in these cases where I don’t know enough about the topic I try to talk to people who are in these fields. And what I found interesting is that none of the top researchers that conduct research in electrical brain stimulation actually use this on themselves and that brings me to believe that this is not a really well-confirmed scientific field to put it like that. I’m not saying that this is not working or it will never work I just believe strongly that there is more to it than just bring it to use and it is very premature. In other words, you do not control if you do something bad to yourself using some solutions on the line or if you are actually doing any goods, so there need to be more studies actually confirming the positive effects and the overall strategy of use of these devices.
Now contrary to that by using EEG in a passive way, as we put it, what does it mean? It can mean more than one thing, but let’s just simplify it and say we have headphones and let’s say that you have several types of music or auditory input you want to play to the brain depending on the current brain state to achieve a certain goal. In my opinion, that really carries no risk to the individual because you’re not modifying any of our, biological inputs. So that’s the main difference but I am happy to see that there are more and more people trying to get in this field and I believe this is a good thing.
HOST: Yeah. It’s pretty exciting stuff. Anyways. You are in Serbia. What is the advantage of being in Serbia and how has that affected your guys’ growth?
IVAN: Well, Serbia is my home place. Before that, I’ve been doing a Ph.D. in biomedical signal processing in Belgium. So, the start of mBrainTrain coincides with me coming back to my hometown. And, to be honest, when we started, I didn’t even know we were a startup. I’m sure that this sounds really crazy, and if I was in the United States, this would definitely not be the case. I just knew I was, driven by the desire to create first a mobile EEG. We spent some minutes talking about it privately, but this was sort of a driving force.
The country and the market here were not really startup friendly with little access to VC funding or even angel investments. There is a lot of bootstrapping you have to do. We had luck, we got one government grant early on in 2014, and this really helps us immensely.
HOST: Sorry, is that grants from Serbia? Are that grants from the EU?
IVAN: It is a grant from Serbia. I think that the particular fund it’s called the innovation fund in agreement by the Serbian government. It is not part of the official funding scheme or Horizon 2020, let’s say more of a government bond. But anyway, we had to bootstrap a bit and there were quite a few difficult moments there because there was no way to get some bridge money when that fund started running out about the year from it starts. It forced us to think clearly and to really be able to put out an MVP soon. Our first device was really like an MVP. The software was so basic that you simply had one button: record. And you observed the impedances like the quality of contacts, from the electrodes. But that sort of MVP approach enables us to, later on, tackle some very important, issues like the quality of Bluetooth, wireless connection…
It sounds very trivial, but believe me, it is not. So you have many Bluetooth devices and many of them are, constantly pairing and doing all sorts of stuff. So if you transfer EEG over Bluetooth, which we do, and we did, this is such a high throughput connection that it has to work perfectly. And of course, it doesn’t work perfectly out of the box. We relied heavily on that and because, we could not do a lot of re-engineering along the way, because of a lack of funds, we were forced to really deep dive into some of these topics and sort it out. Consequentially, we have great devices nowadays that work. In my opinion in a very, very reliable fashion compared to some others.
And Serbia, the rest of it. Well, part of me felt at home, part of me felt disconnected. The startup community was just becoming in away. Fast forward 2020s are way better. Now you have community, you have meetups, you have all sorts of things. I think we are still short on financing, but there are funds. There are also few in the countries around and there are possibilities. I think the situation is way better and we are locally regarded as one of the pioneers.
HOST: So what’s kind of your future short term and long-term plans?
IVAN: I mentioned our vision to bring EEG to everyday people and another angle of looking at it is a sort of a new type of interface if you think of it like that. Imagine what kind of interface do you have with the rest of the world? You have your language, right? You have your computer and you have your mobile phone. This sort of interface that I am foreseeing, and that we believe in is based on true mental states, including emotions, that could be used to communicate. To achieve that there is a long way to go yet. The signals that we capture are in the microvolt range. What that means is that everything around you, simple movements, changing the sound, temperature, lighting, can disturb those signals. And there is a lot of technology behind the scenes that need to be developed, luckily, we are developing it very fast. On the electronics, on the algorithms on the materials like electrodes and, so forth. So once you get your personal EEG device, you don’t have to spend your time adjusting to it because this is not our idea. The idea is that this new type of device, doesn’t take time from you, but just the opposite, to help you regain some of your time and life back through optimization of your life and work. And, let’s not forget it, this should be fun, this should be a fun experience.
So we are getting there, every year brings us closer, every quarter there is a small milestone that we cover. We are going to remain in the research space because we believe in a very scientific approach, we believe that the top labs that we collaborate with, they should be also confirming that the technology behind what you propose is sound.
And we are going there one step at a time, I’m guessing we are going to see one or two, more research headphones. And then who knows maybe, you get to wear one of our devices yourself.
HOST: Hopefully. Ivan, this has been excellent. Thank you so much. Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you wanted to mention?
IVAN: Difficult question, it’s past midnight here, so it’s hard to remember. But, it’s been a pleasure to me as well. I’ll keep the track of your interesting guests and yourself. So let’s keep in touch and maybe we catch up with some exciting news soon, too.
HOST: Excellent. Looking forward to it. Thank you so much.
NARRATOR: Thank you. Hope you enjoyed the show and were able to learn something new, bringing together different fields in novel ways until next time on the neural implant podcast. For more interesting podcasts on neuroprosthetics/brain-machine interfaces/brain implants please visit neuralimplantpodcast.com