Peter Thiel, co-founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies Inc., speaks during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Palantir co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has invested in a company that’s putting computer chips into people’s heads in a bid to improve them in some way.
The early Facebook investor, who co-founded PayPal with Elon Musk in 1998, has backed the firm called Blackrock Neurotech in a $10 million financing round, taking an undisclosed amount of equity in the process.
The funding round was confirmed to CNBC by Blackrock Neurotech but Thiel declined to comment.
Founded in 2008 and headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, Blackrock has been selling hardware and software to the neuroscience research community for over a decade.
“It’s a niche market but one we knew we could get revenue in, and we’ve been profitable since 2015,” Blackrock Neurotech CEO Marcus Gerhardt told CNBC, adding that the firm hasn’t taken any significant venture capital funding until now.
“We got to a stage in 2020, where we couldn’t take all the contracts we were being offered so we realized we needed external capital to do that,” he added.
Among other things, Blackrock Neurotech, which has 88 staff, is also working on its own brain-computer interface (BCI) devices.
As a result, it’s competing with Neuralink, which was founded in 2016 in San Francisco by Musk and Max Hodak, who announced on May 1 that he recently left the company.
Measuring just a few millimeters, BCIs are designed to enable humans to do things they couldn’t previously do; Blackrock and Neuralink are targeting their first products at people with limited movement and other disabilities.
In April, Neuralink showed how its “Link” device could help a monkey play video games with its mind, and it’s targeting human trials on patients later this year. Musk also demonstrated the technology on a pig named Gertrude.
Meanwhile, Blackrock Neurotech claims it is further along than Neuralink and that it has already put its devices into 28 patients across the U.S., China and Europe, as well as primates and rodents.
“There are human patients using our implants and technology already to accomplish things directly with their minds that were unimaginable 10 years ago,” said Gerhardt, who met his electrical engineer co-founder Florian Solzbacher at boarding school in Wales three decades ago.
Tetraplegic patients are using Blackrock’s brain-computer interfaces to control robotic limbs directly from and with the brain, the company said, while another who couldn’t talk as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has been able to communicate via a voice synthesizer that’s controlled by his mind.
How BCIs work
The miniature devices are implanted in the brain in areas where doctors want to record activity. If a patient struggles with hand movement, for example, then the device would be put into a part of the brain known as the motor or pre-motor cortex.
Once implanted, electrodes that are attached to the device record neuron activity (i.e. what the person is thinking), amplify the signal of those thoughts, and send it to a computer.
Software on the computer then tries to interpret what the brain was trying to do, and an algorithm turns that into commands that can control a robotic arm, move a cursor, or create a voice pattern, for example.
“This is a complex problem, just like going to the moon was,” Solzbacher told CNBC, adding that it’s rewarding work.
“One moment with one of those patients that have our implants gives so much energy and drive,” he said. “When you’re locked in your body, it’s very hard to not be very depressed and see very little point in life,” added Solzbacher, saying that he enjoys seeing “the fire in their eyes and the hope.”
Blackrock vs. Neuralink
Andrew Jackson, professor of neural interfaces at Newcastle University, told CNBC that Neuralink’s device can record more brain cell activity than Blackrock’s BCIs because it has more “channels” or recording sites.
Neuralink’s device records activity at multiple points along each of the flexible electrodes that are sewn into the brain by a surgical robot, Jackson said, while Blackrock’s BCIs only have a single recording site at the tip of each of their rigid silicon pronged electrodes.
Another thing to note is that Blackrock’s patient trials have involved wires coming through the skin. Both Neuralink and Blackrock Neurotech are now working on wireless devices.
Jackson said more is known about the overall performance of Blackrock’s technology than Neuralink’s, partly because the company has been around for longer.
“The main challenge (for Blackrock Neurotech) is how to translate from a business that mainly supplies electrode arrays to scientists working with animals into a commercially viable product for humans,” he said.
Patients who have had one of Blackrock’s devices installed have not had to pay as the procedures have all been part of clinical trials, which are often funded with millions of dollars.
Blackrock Neurotech eventually wants its devices to be distributed in the same way that pacemakers and cochlear implants are. “We’re aiming for a commercially available device next year, at the latest,” said Gerhardt.
Thiel’s right-hand man in Europe
Other Blackrock Neurotech investors include the founder of Apeiron Investment Group, Christian Angermayer, who has backed several other companies with Thiel including psychedelic drug development firm Atai. Indeed, Angermayer is the one who introduced Blackrock to Thiel.
Angermayer said Blackrock Neurotech will enable patients with all kinds of severe physical and neurological impairments to regain function and reclaim their lives.
“To enable people to walk, talk, see, hear and feel again is a massive market, as unfortunately 1.7% of the U.S. population, or around 5.4 million people in the U.S., are living with some form of paralysis,” he said.
Angermayer added that this is just the beginning for brain-computer interfaces.
“I am confident that in less than 20 years’ time, we will all have a BCI,” he said. “The ultimate potential of this technology is to be a fundamental input-output device used by all of us, unlocking truly astonishing use cases and abilities — such as superhuman memory augmentation or telepathic communication. It is impossible today to imagine what the future will look like, but I believe Blackrock will be the one to take us there.”
Elsewhere, scientists at the University of Melbourne have also had some success with brain-computer interfaces.
A study out of the University of Melbourne in October showed two humans controlling a computer through thought using a stentrode (a small stent-mounted electrode array) developed by Australian biotech firm Synchron without having to shave the skull and drill through it.
The stentrode brain-computer interface allowed two people with ALS to type, text, email, do online banking and shop online through thought.