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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
no need for keystrokes or voices. I created this tweet just by thinking it. #helloworldbci
— Thomas Oxley (@tomoxl) December 23, 2021
my hope is that I’m paving the way for people to tweet through thoughts phil
— Thomas Oxley (@tomoxl) December 23, 2021
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.
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.