Synchron: Unlocking The Natural Highways Of The Brain

Synchron founders and inaugural MedTech Actuator Origin alumni Associate Professor Thomas Oxley and Professor Nicholas Opie spoke with us recently about their journey to unlock the natural highways of the brain. 

For startups who may be struggling with funding, technology and doors closing, Thomas and Nicholas’ story shows that curiosity, resilience, drive and friendship are key to success in the long road of MedTech innovation.

On consciousness and Astro Boy

Tracing early childhood’s influence on life-changing innovation.

Thomas: As a boy growing up, conversations with my father got me thinking about wanting to do new things. I think innovation is a curiosity, or wanting to change the way that things are into something new. And from a very young age I was fascinated with things that we didn’t understand, or things that we didn’t know. 

“My conversations with my father about philosophy and space kept pushing me towards the areas of the unknown.”

Thomas talking about the origins of his innovation during MedTech’s Got Talent (now known as MedTech Actuator Origin) Gala Final 2013

I remember deciding quite early on as a teenager that there were three big mysteries that were worth chasing in life: the brain, the ocean, and outer space. I was exposed to things around the brain when I was quite young and it was this big black box mystery to me.

A lot of people go into medicine because they have an experience in their family, or they want to be healers. I went into medicine with a fascination around what was not known. I was drawn to solving mysteries around what the brain is, and what consciousness is.

When I finished medicine, I was first exposed to brain computer interfaces (BCI) on night shift in 2008. I saw a scientific piece about the first human implant with a BCI. And it just set off my imagination with what it could mean and where it could go. 

And this was all, I think, the origin of my person.

Nicholas: For me it was a little bit different. My fascination came from cartoons: Inspector Gadget, Astro Boy. I watched those cartoons as a kid and said, “I want to do that. I want to build robotic devices that people can use.” And this has stemmed throughout my career.

When Nick saw Astro Boy as a child when he was 6 learning to make things he said, “I want to do that.”

I did science and engineering at university and then continued on that passion, developing prosthetic devices and bionic eyes. 

“I tried to find ways that I could make technology using my hands, and help people who didn’t have any other option.”

I did a lot of research and academic work, and solved a lot of interesting problems. But in academia, at least from my perspective, there was this continual cycle of, “There’s a new problem – you solve it. There’s a new problem – you solve it.” 

Sure, we found new knowledge and that was great. But it didn’t seem to make a big impact on the community at large. 

It was really only when meeting Tom, and we came up with the idea of making a technology that goes inside blood vessels as a novel way to access the brain and learn the information contained within, that we really had the chance and opportunity to say:

 

“It’s now up to us. Do we want to continue this cycle of learning? Or is there a way that we can really push this forward and make sure it gets to the people that need it.”

Tom and I were well aligned early on that this was the path we wanted to take. And this started progressing with the MedTech Actuator Origin (then known as MedTech’s Got Talent) helping us along the way, showing us what it means to turn from academia or research into a commercial company.

Nicholas and Thomas took out the top prize for Synchron at the inaugural MedTech’s Got Talent (now known as MedTech Actuator Origin) Gala Final 2013.

“Hello World” – the first direct-thought tweet 

When Philip communicated with the world through thought.

Thomas: The first patient was implanted with the Synchron brain computer interface back in August 2019. He had his first system and was using WhatsApp within a few weeks of having turned the system on. 

Then the idea for direct-thought tweets came about at the end of 2021, as a feel-good Christmas story. A patient that we work with, Philip O’Keefe, [voice cracks a little with emotion] is an amazing guy and just full of energy. Philip is 62 years old, and has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“Philip is facing this horrible illness and his mortality with this enthusiasm and understanding that what he is working on is hopefully going to help people in his position in years to come after him.” 

It was very stressful for Philip, with a thirty minute take-over period for him to tweet directly from my twitter account using his thoughts. His whole family was there with him.

Phil sends the world’s first-ever tweets using direct thought with the Synchron brain computer interface.

But he had his 16-year-old daughter there and his wife and the family. There were tears, it was incredible. It was a life affirming moment for Philip, and an inspiration for his family. It was really special.


Phil created these tweets from Thomas’ account using direct-thought

Building the team behind a groundbreaking technology

And the ecosystem behind the team.

Nicholas: People can learn what they need to learn. But it’s very hard to change who you are. I really go into a lot of the interviews and try to find people that I gel with, that I think are enthusiastic and have the same values, and really want to make a difference. 

If they don’t have particular skills, if they’re good enough and they want it enough – which becomes apparent when you’re speaking with them – they’ll be able to learn those skills, for the most part. 

I don’t really use the skills that I learnt in my engineering degree any more, because they’re not the ones that I’m passionate about. And I think the same goes the other way around. 

“If you’re really passionate about something then you can learn anything.”

So largely, it’s been about getting the right people – not necessarily the right skills. Skills are certainly important, you don’t want to be too far away. But we look for the right people to form a team and to form a culture of excellence, people who are enthusiastic about driving forward the mission that we have.

Thomas: Going back to really key leadership positions that we had to put in place – research and development, clinical, regulatory, and product. You also have to sell a vision – it’s not just a job now. This is a generational chance to make a contribution to something that’s going to change the world. And to do that you have to take risks, because everyone has taken a pay cut to come to the company, because there are other rewards. And so that plays into what Nick was talking about. 

“We’re looking for the risk-taking, entrepreneurial, full of life people who are willing to find ways to make it work.”

I think entrepreneurship is growing in Australia. I did notice when I moved over to the US, the cultural norm of a startup is more at the forefront of psychology there. It’s more talked about, the language is there, the words are there, there’s more of an understanding of it. And I think it’s growing now in Australia too, and that takes time.

Nicholas: I think it also comes from the education sector. When I finished my PhD along with others, we handed in our thesis, and off we went. We were done. And we didn’t know what to do next. There was no pathway. 

“But at a lot of American institutions, you have to do a final year in your PhD, whether you’re successful or not, and try to start a business out of what you’ve made.” 

So you’re already in the mindset of doing this [PhD] for the purpose of taking it further. And you’re guided – but not only guided, you’re mandated – to do that and to get that experience. 

I think it would be great to have this in Australia. To get everyone to start thinking about, ‘why am I doing this?’, and ‘if I do it, how can I take it further’? Regardless of whether it works or not, that’s not the point. 

It’s about getting in the mindset of not just doing things for the sake of doing things. But doing things because there’s a beneficial societal role that comes at the end.

On determination, resilience, and being uncrushable

Facing things not going your way, again and again.

Nicholas: I don’t know how many of those pitches you did, Tom. But you continued to do them, refining them, getting them better every time – even though it all kept shutting on you. To be able to continue doing that and then finally get to a point where someone says, ‘we’re ready to go’, that must have been a highlight for you. You put in a huge amount of effort and I don’t know how you were able to continue receiving the ‘nos’ – that’s amazing.

Thomas: Thanks Nick. I think we made contact with a particular investor in January 2019, and then the deal was done in 2021. So it took two years. And I think I counted that it was 200 engaged groups until we got the deal done and got to Series B. And now the trajectory is looking a bit different to where we were.

Nicholas: That’s a bit of a lesson for founders in MedTech Actuator programs and the innovation ecosystem more broadly. That you’ve got to have that resilience. You need to believe in yourself and your own technology. And you need to be able to face a whole lot of things not going your way, particularly in the pitching space. 

And hopefully you’ll get lucky and the timing will be right, and it’ll kick off. But you know don’t stop after two or three or five or ten – or 200! [laughs] – negative ones, right? You’ve got to keep going. The position we are in today is because Tom has had the ability to keep going and to keep searching. 

Thomas: Throughout our time working together, Nick has had this unending amount of enthusiasm and optimism that is uncrushable. A lot of people just give up or don’t have this sort of resilience. 

What I’ve loved about working with Nick for all these years is that when I get a little bit flat or down, he’s always able to bounce us back up. Sometimes he misplaces his optimism and feels that everything is going to work out! But when it’s getting tough I really feed off Nick’s resilience.

Nicholas and Thomas’ journey as friends and Founders at MedTech’s Got Talent (now known as MedTech Actuator Origin) Gala Final 2013

On answering childhood curiosities

And the calling of Inspector Gadget.

Thomas: In terms of my childhood curiosity, I think the subconscious in the brain is a massively untouched area that still seems invisible. I’m probably going to die before we get the chance to really understand that. There’s so much to learn from the brain to understand what we’re manifesting.

Nicholas: I’ll never genuinely feel like Inspector Gadget. There’s always more tricks that he can pull out of his hat. That’s a never ending story that will keep going and keep getting better. 

Learn more about Synchron, and read the Press Release announcing Philip O’Keefe’s ‘Hello World’ moment on 23 December 2021.





Congratulations to the MedTech Actuator Origin finalists!

Out of ten impressive startups that made it through to the Origin Semi-final, MedTech Actuator is proud to announce three finalists moving forward to pitch at the MedTech Actuator Showcase.

After an intensive sprint, the cohort of emerging founders took to the virtual stage to pitch for their place in the 2021 MedTech Actuator Origin finals. At the Showcase next week, teams will pitch for their chance to win $15K prize money, fast-tracked application to MedTech Actuator – Asia Pacific’s MedTech accelerator – and in-kind support.

Meet this cohort’s finalists:

Vysum

Team members: Lorace (Tianshu) Zhang, David Lin, Isaac Ho

Vysum aims to develop a handheld device to make eye drop administration more convenient for glaucoma patients to improve treatment compliance and prevent blindness. 

Vysum originated from the year-long BioDesign Innovation subject at The University of Melbourne. Teams formed from the Melbourne Business School and the Department of Engineering explored 147 clinical needs in 4 areas including neonatal ICU, ophthalmology, mental health and chronic pain.

After surveying over 400 glaucoma patients and interviewing over 30 clinicians, the team identified problems within accuracy and compliance of treatment administration. Vysum’s eye drop device, Ocumate, makes treatment more accurate, convenient and enjoyable for glaucoma patients and clinicians, ultimately connecting patients and clinicians for improved care.

Aeolus by Spira Health

Team members: Joseph Po, Tony Pang, Jason Jin and Jake Harris

The team behind Aeolus discovered gaps in care for obstructive sleep apnoea whilst undertaking the Biodesign Sydney program. Obstructive sleep apnoea has an extensive impact on cardiovascular health and other health concerns.

Currently, sleep apnoea is treated with a one-size fits all approach that is designed for late-stage sufferers. There is a clear need for better therapeutic options in this area that can improve symptoms and health impacts and relieve the health burden obstructive sleep apnoea has across society.

Aeolus is a medical device that trains the muscles of the throat, empowering people with obstructive sleep apnoea to proactively improve their sleep and make the most out of every day.

Think Project

Team members: Anushi Rajapaksa, James Friend

Think Project emerged from research conducted by Dr Anushi Rajapaksa, a senior scientist based at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Many people around the world have a phobia of needles, just like Anushi.

Pain-free therapies and medication delivery via the lungs seemed like a no-brainer to Anushi. Over the past few years, Anushi has dedicated her work to discovering and developing new technologies that will enable liquid medications to be inhaled, rather than injected.

Anushi and team have developed a novel acoustic nebuliser for rapid lung delivery of life-saving biomolecules against infectious respiratory diseases in children.

The MedTech Actuator Origin final will take place on Thursday 9 December 2021 at the MedTech Actuator Showcase. A full recording will be made available to guests who were unable to attend in the week following the event.

About MedTech Actuator Origin

Find out more about MedTech Actuator Origin and sign up below to stay in the loop on joining future cohorts.

Photo: Dr Anushi Rajapaksa, MedTech Actuator Origin 2021 Finalist.

MedTech Actuator Origin Semi-Finalists Announced

Twenty impressive teams recently battled it out at the MedTech Actuator Origin Rapid Fire Rounds, pitching their ideas to improve and save lives through health innovation. Ten teams took out top place and are now progressing to the Semi-Finals.

The ten emerging stars will experience industry-led mentoring and education, turbocharging their ideas and taking them closer to making their entrepreneurship ambitions a reality.

Contestants include clinicians, researchers, and students who are working on MedTech, HealthTech and BioTech innovations that patients need and clinicians want. They’re pioneering in diverse fields spanning respiratory disease, heart disease, sleep, mental health, epilepsy, brain tumours, stroke, lumbar punctures, glaucoma and more.

What’s at stake?

The teams will join MedTech Actuator Menzies Scholars next week for a three-day intensive sprint exploring the Australian healthcare ecosystem and how to take their startup to market.

Industry mentors, MedTech Actuator alumni and ecosystem leaders will share their knowledge and insights with the teams, pressure test their projects and guide them in refining their business models.

The experience will culminate in the MedTech Actuator Origin Semi-Finals next Wednesday evening where teams will compete for a place in the MedTech Actuator Showcase. At the Showcase teams will have the chance to win $15K prize money, fast-tracked application to MedTech Actuator – Asia Pacific’s MedTech accelerator – and in-kind support valued at $5K.

Welcome To Our Semi-Finals Contestants

We are excited to announce the ten teams participating in the MedTech Actuator Origin intensive sprint and Semi-Finals. We wish each of these rising stars all the very best in their pitch and beyond in their endeavours to improve and save lives.

  • Anura (CAHM) | Jessica Anderson, William Symington, Elamathi Arivukkan Venugopal, Phoebe Lewis, Rebecca McCormick | Anura is developing CAHM, a wearable device that monitors lung function during daily activities to facilitate early treatment for respiratory disease flare-ups, preventing severe illness and hospitalisation.
  • Cardiopin | Farhad Goodarzy, David Kaye, Andi Partovi | Cardiopin is developing a novel, in-home monitoring system for congestive heart failure, using easy-to-access biomarkers like voice recordings and weight measurements.
  • Circadian Health Innovations (The Melanopic Eye) | Rowan Page, Elliott Wilson, Andrew Phillips | Circadian Health Innovations are developing the Melanopic Eye, a light sensing wearable that guides people to healthy light for better sleep, mental health, and general wellbeing.
  • Nuroflux | David Almeida Cardoso, Sam van Bohemen | Nuroflux is a wearable, continuous brain-monitoring device for stroke patient management.
  • SimpleSense EEG | Sebastian Corlette | SimpleSense EEG is making high-quality electroencephalogram possible for any patient, at any time.
  • SoundMind | Pete Field | SoundMind is focused on improving your sleep performance so you can reach your greatest human potential.
  • Spira Health (Aeolus) | Joseph Po, Tony Pang, Jason Jin, Jake Harris | Spira Health is developing Aeolus, a device that trains the muscles of the throat and is designed to empower people with obstructive sleep apnoea to proactively improve their sleep, allowing them to make the most out of their day.
  • Think Global Project | Anushi Rajapaksa, James Friend | Think Global Project has developed a novel acoustic nebuliser for rapid lung delivery of life-saving biomolecules against infectious respiratory diseases in children.
  • Vause Medical (LumVi) | Trinh (Mara) Quach, Shelby Marie Holland, Alexandra Wigley, Amanda Druk, Michelle Callow | Vause Medical is developing LumVi, a medical guidance system that helps clinicians choose the correct puncture point during a lumbar puncture.
  • Vysum | Lorace (Tianshu) Zhang, Darren Tan, David Lin, Isaac Ho, Aryan Motevali | Vysum aims to develop a handheld device to make eye drop administration more convenient for glaucoma patients, improving treatment compliance and preventing blindness.

About MedTech Actuator Origin

Find out more about MedTech Actuator Origin and sign up below to stay in the loop on joining future cohorts.

Meet Makenzie – Program and Community Coordinator

MedTech Actuator Program and Community Coordinator Makenzie Thomas brings her passion for entrepreneurship, startup ecosystems and supporting founders to delivering MedTech Actuator Origin, and the MedTech Actuator Menzies Scholarship and Fellowship programs.

Makenzie’s international experience spans Europe, Australia, and Canada – working in project management, marketing, business innovation, academic research, and creative and cultural entrepreneurship.

MedTech Actuator Showcase 2021.
Makenzie with Maria Pelipas – MedTech Actuator, Emily Casey – What The Health and Bonnie Zhang – TRAM, University of Melbourne at the MedTech Actuator Showcase 2021.

Makenzie draws on this international experience to deliver MedTech Actuator Origin – an idea pitch competition – and the MedTech Actuator Menzies Scholarship and Fellowship programs – supporting researchers alongside the Menzies Foundation to transform their impact.

“My role covers everything from rolling out application campaigns to participant experience, to program delivery. I also look after our community and its activities,” says Makenzie.

“From one day to the next I could be writing communications, drafting social media visuals, developing program strategy, jumping into workshops, providing pitch feedback to founders, working with our network of inspiring speakers – it is quite a mixed bag!”

Cheering on founders

Working with founders is a real highlight for Makenzie in her role.

“They’ve got such a unique energy that becomes the foundation upon which they build their startups.

One thing I love about my role is that we’re right there with them, celebrating the small wins, cheering them on as they pitch (over and over) and guiding them in the right direction.

It takes so much to go from idea to successful startup and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight.

The ecosystem, accelerator programs, like MedTech Actuator, and their own personal networks are essential to success.

Being a part of this world and being able to have an impact across a number of founder journeys is my why. It’s the reason I’m here at MedTech Actuator.”

On the horizon

Makenzie says that there’s a lot happening in the MedTech, BioTech and HealthTech space, especially in Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region.

“I’m entering this corner of the entrepreneurship world with fresh eyes and I know that the ecosystem is growing and seeing some big wins. I’m really excited to learn from MedTech Actuator, the innovation ecosystem and the amazing founders coming through our programs.

The ecosystem is channeling a lot of this energy into supporting and nurturing female founders as well. The State of Australian Startup Funding 2021 report published by Cut Through Ventures and Folklore noted that from 2020 to 2021, funding events involving at least one female founder rose by 1%, leaving a whopping 81% of deals for all-male founding teams.

It’s disappointing, to say the least, but it is a huge challenge facing the whole industry and it stems from a number of systemic issues. Considering that MedTech Actuator supports and works closely with so many inspiring female founders, we’ll be doing more to amplify these stories, share the wins, demand space for women at the table, and open our calendars to early-stage female founders, researchers, and clinicians so that these numbers can continue to shift in the right direction.”

Meet our team

Get to know how others in the MedTech Actuator team are supporting Asia Pacific’s next wave of health innovators:

MedTech Actuator Origin is back – apply today!

Are you an aspiring entrepreneur with a MedTech, BioTech or HealthTech startup idea? Apply now for the 2021 MedTech Actuator Origin!

All superheroes have a beginning and so do startup founders. Transform your idea or research with MedTech Actuator Origin – a two month early-stage entrepreneurship competition that will help you translate your concept into an impact orientated health venture.

Whether you’re a researcher, scientist, clinician, student or garage inventor, MedTech Actuator Origin is looking for passionate entrepreneurs to transform healthcare. Apply today!

The MedTech Actuator Origin experience

Delivered in-person and online, MedTech Actuator Origin is open to Australian health entrepreneurs and will run from October to December 2021. Our experts will pressure test your idea and expose you to the world of startups through:

  • Workshops – gain insight into what it takes to protect your idea and learn how to craft a prize-winning pitch.
  • Rapid Fire Round – pitch your concept to a panel of industry leaders and peers, putting your idea and pitching skills to the test.
  • Mentoring – receive tailored mentorship from industry experts who will help you bring your MedTech, BioTech or HealthTech innovation to market.
  • Access to the MedTech Actuator knowledge hub – commercialisation 101 curated content for researchers and medical professionals turned entrepreneurs.
  • Sprint Intensive – access a 3-day sprint intensive where you’ll dive into the world of entrepreneurship and commercialisation, including workshops, founder stories, panel discussions, activities, and heaps more!
  • Pitch Competition – bring together all your ideas in a short, 3-minute pitch to a select panel of judges to earn one of three places at the MedTech Actuator Showcase, a $15k cash prize and over $5k worth of in-kind prizes.
  • MedTech Actuator Showcase – pitch your idea to the ecosystem at the MedTech Actuator Showcase, a black-tie gala event for investors, industry-leaders, corporate partners and global MedTech companies.

The Origin winner will take home $15k in cash and have the opportunity to be fast-tracked through the application process for the MedTech Actuator – Asia Pacific’s MedTech accelerator – moving your product even closer to market.

Meet Amy Yu – MedTech Actuator Origin alumna

Photo of Amy Yu in MedTech Actuator superhero tee, Melbourne lane way by night.
Amy Yu, MedTech Actuator Origin alumna & Ventora Medical CTO.

“Ventora Medical spun out of the BioDesign Innovation program at the University of Melbourne. As soon as we graduated in 2018, we entered MedTech Actuator Origin. For Ventora, MedTech Actuator Origin really was the first point of validation from the MedTech entrepreneurial community in Melbourne. We were lucky enough to get through each round and be selected as a top five finalist.

You don’t know what you don’t know, and MedTech Actuator Origin taught us just that. At the bootcamps we took that all in, like sponges, and learnt so much from MedTech Actuator. This was backed up by networking with people who helped us achieve all of those unknowns and hit milestones.”

– Amy Yu, MedTech Actuator Origin alumna and Ventora Medical CTO, Forbes 30 Under 30

Key dates

  • Applications open: 6 Aug – 30 Sep
  • Finalists announced: 1 Oct
  • Online MedTech Actuator Origin Workshops: 7 Oct
  • Rapid Fire Round Pitch: 21 Oct
  • Mentoring and Sprint Intensive preparation: 22 Oct – 15 Nov
  • Sprint Intensive: 15 Nov – 17 Nov
  • Semi-finals Pitch: 17 Nov
  • MedTech Actuator Showcase and Finals Pitch: 9 Dec

Apply now

Are you ready to transform your idea and build your origin story – or do you know someone who is? Find out more about MedTech Actuator Origin and apply today.