Published September 26th, 2016
Photo provided by Neurable.
ANN ARBOR—Ramses Alcaide arrived at the University of Michigan in 2010 with one goal in mind: to help people with disabilities engage more fully with the world.
He is almost there.
Working with U-M Tech Transfer, Alcaide advanced technology developed at the U-M Direct Brain Interface Laboratory and created a new startup. Neurable has developed a brain wave interpretation system that allows for uniquely precise and flexible control of devices such as toys, cars, wheelchairs, TVs and video games.
“Instead of just pressing a button to create magic, imagine actually willing magic to happen. That’s the future we want to create with Neurable.”
— Ramses Alcaide, Neurable president and CEO
Neurable’s system involves a cap that can detect brain wave activity and turn it into action. He demonstrates the software by moving a Lego Mindstorm car, but has also controlled wheelchairs and a Nissan Versa.
“There’s a brain signal you can see in our logo, the P300. We detect that signal inside the person’s brain activity and then the item they want selected generates this brain signal every time,” he said. “It’s kind of a brain hack that can be used in many ways.”
Alcaide’s use of the university’s resources serves as a master class for other student startups on how to leverage the U-M entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Neurable received support and advice from staff and faculty at U-M Tech Transfer, the Center for Entrepreneurship, the Zell Lurie Institute, the Alumni Association, the School of Information and the Medical School at various times.
“I think what was unique about Ramses is he availed himself of all of the resources that were available throughout the university system,” said Tom Frank, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at U-M’s College of Engineering. “It is somewhere between rare and atypical.”
Seeding the Future
Neurable's technology will first launch in the gaming world, making augmented reality and virtual reality easier to control. Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.
Ramses Alcaide advanced technology developed by Jane Huggins, Ph.D., right, in the U-M Direct Brain Interface Laboratory.
Ramses Alcaide was born in Mexico, moved to the U.S. when he was five years old and grew up in Seattle. Three years later, a beloved uncle was in a trucking accident that severed both legs. The accident sparked in Alcaide a lifelong passion to find a way to help people with severe disabilities interact with the world.
He spent much of his childhood tinkering with toys like Nintendo entertainment systems. “I used to buy them broken, fix them and sell them back. I guess that also shows how I was an entrepreneur, even from a young age.”
“He has lots of passion. He has a great deal of energy and drive for making things work and for getting things done. He has a rare combination of the sales and showman side and the technical side as well.”
— Jane Huggins, Ph.D., principal investigator at the U-M Direct Brain Interface Laboratory
Ramses Alcaide, right, after his uncle Margarito Aguirre’s accident.
He studied electrical engineering at the University of Washington and moved to U-M to work on his doctorate in neuroscience, working with Jane Huggins, Ph.D., principal investigator at the U-M Direct Brain Interface Laboratory.
“Her lab is one of the few in the world that really focuses on taking brain-computer interface technology and integrating it into real world applications instead of just theory,” Alcaide said. He initially used the technology, which he developed in his first three-month stint at Huggins’ lab, to help children with cerebral palsy take cognitive tests. He applied it in various projects for Huggins.
Huggins received a grant in 2008 for research into using the brain-computer interface to adjust the position of the seat on a power wheelchair in what they called the hold and release project. It was the term project she gave Alcaide during his 2010 rotation in her lab and what they submitted in the patent application in 2014.
Market research was important for Neurable, Huggins said, because it’s hard in the disability community to establish the size of the population that might need a particular technology. “It’s a level of impairment where people become invisible.”
While the shift to gaming makes sense, Huggins worries that the product could diverge from how it could be used to help people with disabilities.
“It’s wonderful that Ramses has this kind of opportunity,” said Huggins, a scientific advisor to Neurable. “When I talk to Ramses about long-term, he’s very passionate about helping people with impairments.”
Teams participating in the Michigan Business Challenge at the Zell Lurie Institute. In the first row second from the left is Michael Thompson, Neurable's business development manager. Right is Max Jacobson, an MBA student who worked with Neurable at the time. Second row second from left is Ramses Alcaide, president and CEO of Neurable. To Ramses' left is Xiaoya Ma, who cofounded Neurable but is working on other projects now.
Photo of Mike Johnson
The journey started when the invention was filed with U-M Tech Transfer in February 2014. Alcaide and Huggins worked with licensing specialist Jessica Soulliere to create a commercialization model and file the patent application. They also worked with the Venture Center to plan the startup with help from Mike Psarouthakis, the center’s assistant director, along with mentors-in-residence Mike Johnson and Braden Robison, both seasoned entrepreneurs who provided advice and guidance for commercialization.
“Neurable’s technology could make a big difference in a number of real world and virtual world applications. Ramses is a person with the curiosity and passion to change the world.”
— Mike Johnson, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Zell Lurie Institute and mentor-in-residence at U-M Tech Transfer
Another resource was the Fast Forward Medical Innovation program in the Medical School. Jon Servoss, a commercialization program manager for FFMI, said Alcaide took the Early Tech Development Course in spring 2015 to discover the easiest path to develop the technology.
Tech Transfer helped Alcaide successfully apply for a Coulter Translational Research Grant that funded additional technology development to determine the best market entry strategy.
Meantime, through the School of Information, Alcaide got a chance to demo the technology at SXSW Interactive in Austin in 2015. Months later, he did another demo at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Next, Alcaide received a Jump Start grant from the Center for Entrepreneurship, and competed in the Michigan Business Challenge hosted by the Zell Lurie Institute. Their presentation at the Rice Business Plan Competition in April gave them a big boost.
“Neurable was the most disruptive technology at the competition. Judges, most of whom are investors, were literally handing Ramses their business cards,” said Anne Perigo, associate director of the Zell Lurie Institute.
Neurable placed second overall and took away the Owl Investment Prize, for a total award of $330,000 at the competition.
“Ramses was a self-initiator who sought out and used each connection to forge his next connection, which is something we find successful entrepreneurs tend to do,” said Frank, from U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship.
Also in the spring, the Neurable team met with more than 130 scientists and business people across the country in eight weeks as part of the I-Corp grant to talk about applications for their technology.
“It’s a team with a great desire to learn. They’ve incorporated mentor and industry feedback, and refined their plan,” Johnson said. “They’re now positioned to help unlock the potential of brain-computer interface applications in augmented and virtual reality. We’re excited to see what comes next.”
Building the Team
The Neurable team from left: James Hamet, Ramses Alcaide, Michael Thompson and Adam Molnar. Photo: Neurable
“Just letting people communicate in new ways, Neurable is really creating the next step in possibility.”
— James Hamet, Neurable lead engineer
University faculty and staff helped Alcaide build his team. For example, Ryan Gourley, director of TechArb, introduced him to two students who were working with other startups that didn’t pan out. They — James Hamet and Adam Molnar — joined Neurable.
“It was clear they were driven and going after the next opportunity,” Gourley said. “Ramses drives his team hard, and I don’t think they mind it.”
Hamet, Neurable’s lead engineer who earned his bachelor’s of science in engineering at U-M’s College of Engineering, started designing his own video games at age 7 because his parents wouldn’t buy them for him.
Neurable’s president and CEO, electrical engineer and neuroscience Ph.D. candidate, developed a lifelong passion to find a way to help people with severe disabilities interact with the world at age 8 after his uncle was injured in a trucking accident.
Neurable’s lead engineer, started designing his own video games at age 7 because his parents wouldn’t allow him to play them at home.
Neurable’s business development lead, is a former U.S. Army officer who wants to apply the leadership skills learned in the military to a startup.
Neurable’s operations manager, has consulting experience and was head of logistics for the EPIC California Cybernetic Fieldwork project.
“I can’t wait for the day when people get to experience that ‘Oh, my God!’ moment when they first realize they controlled something with their brain”
— Adam Molnar, Neurable operations manager
Molnar, operations manager, found the Center for Entrepreneurship in his senior year at U-M and was upset he hadn’t found it sooner. He loaded up on entrepreneurial courses to finish the program.
“Not only is the entrepreneurial community at U-M caring, generous and filled with the best and brightest, but it’s one that welcomes people like me who had no entrepreneurial experience beforehand.”
Michael Thompson, Neurable’s business development lead pursuing his MBA, met Alcaide at a Zell Lurie event last fall.
He was an officer in the U.S. Army for seven years and managed 160 people and $60 million in assets. Thompson praised the mentors at Zell Lurie and the Venture Center for their help in developing the business.
“All of the mentors there are successful entrepreneurs. They are all familiar with the venture community,” he said. “Most students are first-time entrepreneurs. One of the things they’ve done is help us think about this technology in relation to other technologies and industries.”
The company has since moved to Boston to be near its funding partner, which will soon be announced.
Key Dates in Neurable's Journey
Lead engineer James Hamet develops software for a dry version of the sensor cap that communicates brain activity. Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.
- Jane Huggins, Ph.D., Seth Warschausky, Ph.D., and Ramses Alcaide submit the patent application to U-M Tech Transfer for the technology that will be the basis of Neurable.
- Alcaide demonstrated technology at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. through U-M School of Information.
- Alcaide attended networking event at the Zell Lurie Institute in the Ross School of Business.
- Joined TechArb Student Incubator and received a Jump Start Grant from the Center for Entrepreneurship. Attended Zell Lurie Institute startup workshops.
- Advanced in Zell Lurie’s Michigan Business Challenge, Round One.
- Alcaide demonstrated Neurable technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
- Neurable competed in the Center for Entrepreneurship’s The Startup Competition.
- Neurable advances to SemiFinals in the Michigan Business Challenge.
- Receives Zell Lurie’s Dare to Dream grant.
- Neurable was chosen by the National Science Foundation to participate in the I-Corp Program for the commercialization of promising technology.
- Participated in professor David Brophy’s Venture Capital Financing Program.
- Neurable participates in MHacks, the student hackathon event.
- Neurable participates in Wolverine Tank, Alumni Association Student Pitch Contest.
- Competed in the Cardinal Challenge at University of Louisville.
- Finalist in the Michigan Business Challenge.
- Traveled to San Francisco as part of CFE Weather Underground Startup Trek (WUST) program.
- Alcaide and Michael Thompson presented at the Rice Business Plan Competition, placing second overall.
- Alcaide presented with the Valenti Award for exceptional entrepreneurial development at the annual Zell Lurie Institute Entrepreneurial luncheon.
- Michael Thompson awarded the Marcel Gani Internship under the mentorship of Mike Johnson, M.D. – Zell Lurie Institute entrepreneur-in-residence.
- Neurable licensed for exclusive use of the brain computer interface technology by the University of Michigan’s Office of Tech Transfer.
- Neurable relocates to new offices in Cambridge, Mass.
U-M Tech Transfer commercializes university research discoveries and provides resources to inventors. For more information, go to: techtransfer.umich.edu
With more than 15 programs and centers in entrepreneurship and more than 30 entrepreneurial student organizations, University of Michigan programs deliver one of the best and broadest engaged learning experiences on entrepreneurship. Visit http://innovateblue.umich.edu, the U-M hub for entrepreneurship and innovation to connect, find support and your place in the Michigan entrepreneurial community.