Awakening Millions with Brain-Controlled Interfaces with Andreas Forsland, CEO of Cognixion

 


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Imagine if Stephen Hawking couldn't communicate. The world's understanding of theoretical physics would be greatly limited. There are roughly half a billion people like Stephen Hawking who are just waiting for an awakening. They could communicate and contribute if they only had the technology to do so. 

Helping these people with either motor or cognitive limitations be able to communicate is part of the big mission of Andreas Forsland, Founder and CEO at Cognixion. 

Andreas has a robust background in hardware, software, and design. That background all converged when his mother was in the hospital struggling to communicate to healthcare providers. The idea for Cognixion was then born. 

Cognixion is a digital health startup based in Santa Barbara, California and Toronto, Ontario. Cognixion builds accessible and affordable neuroprosthetic software and wearables that use biometric sensors and machine learning in new ways to help people with complex disabilities use their face, eyes and brain as a direct control interface for mobile and augmented reality accessibility. 

Imagine controlling Alexa with your brain. Mind blown!

Cognixion is the "Tesla of Neurotech" and is recognized as a top 21 neurotech startup to watch, and is focused on scaling up the transformation of over 100 million lives and translating universal design approaches for everyone by focusing on the most challenging human interaction needs. 

Show notes:

Music by keldez

 

Transcript

Robert Fenton: [00:00:22] Well, I do appreciate you taking some time here to chat with us today, Andreas, awesome story your company is incredibly impressive. So, I really love to ask you a few questions, to learn a bit about the journey and, what's next and see where the conversation goes.

Andreas Forsland: [00:00:36] That works great.

Robert Fenton: [00:00:37] And that's a, that's a prototype or the real product next to you right there on your right.

Andreas Forsland: [00:00:42] This is one of our development units. We're testing right now with people. This was the first one. you can see all the wires and stuff.

so this was our alpha unit fully integrated system. So we're doing a lot of miniaturization right now. So we're in the process of just getting the super lightweight, weight distribution, signal, quality, just dealing with a bunch of different head sizes and a lot of that. 

Robert Fenton: [00:01:07] And just, to double check it's pronounced cognition, right?

Andreas Forsland: [00:01:11] It is. Yeah. That's a funny, separate story. because the, U.S. PTO and the trademark office rejected our application for a trademark, on it, because it's a normal word, even with the X spelling. and so my friend was, back in Atlanta, her name is Sara Blakely. She started a company called Spanx.

I learned from her actually that she used the phonetical use of the X as a K sound. And so we changed our IVR on our corporate phone system to say, welcome to Cognix ion and we, we filed it as a phonetical variant. And so we got it through, that way. So, so we got our registration through, through a loophole of phonetics, but in truth, we, we call it cognition.

Robert Fenton: [00:01:51] It's amazing what you have to do at times, but good, good hustle figuring that one out  maybe just take a step back here. what's the story behind the company?

Andreas Forsland: [00:01:58] Thank you. Yeah. I think the, the origin of where we  started, which was really around, how do we make, how can we use technology and design technology?

So it's much more, humane, you know, that it's not tech, but it's tech that can adapt to the human, and feel more natural. and that's kind of our ethos in general as product design. but we started out as a, you know, a way of using technology to augment. a person's ability to communicate. So focusing on people that have disabilities, that have trouble verbally communicating or orally communicating, can we allow AI and sensors and, you know, a cool user interface to make it possible for them to do that, you know, and to do it anywhere, whether it's in a hospital or at home, or at the, at the coffee shop, you know?

Robert Fenton: [00:02:45] Yeah. And I'm curious,  is there a story behind that it feels like it's a very particular pinpoint you folks have gone on to solve. What made you, made you see that as something of an opportunity?

Andreas Forsland: [00:02:55] Yeah, this was, I mean, my background I've been in product design and development for a very long time.

I started in the nineties. and so my first job was at IBM as a designer. So I was having designed some of the first internet and interactive experiences using multimedia and stuff. later in my career, I ended up at Phillips electronics. And so I was working in their design group with, their consumer electronics, lighting, healthcare, different business units and helping them figure out what's next in their portfolios.

and then when I left Phillips, I came to Citrix here in Santa Barbara, California. so, dealing with cloud computing software as a service, you know, internet deployed, capabilities. So that was kind of my professional background. You know, like using pretty advanced technology, full stack hardware, software cloud.

but then what happened was just a personal situation. My mom came to visit with us for her 70th birthday, here in Santa Barbara. She was from the East coast and  when she arrived, she wasn't feeling well. And she had to be admitted into the, emergency room right away with pneumonia. So the pneumonia was real aggressive.

She had to be put into ICU and intubated, with a ventilator. she was there and I was sitting by her side trying to communicate with her. I could see the nurses communicating with her. I could see her frustration that she couldn't communicate. She cause she had a tube down her throat. And so at that point I realized, I was like, wow, you know, communication is so vital.

And every human being, like that's such a core part of the human experience is communication. You know, like expressing yourself and being understood and relating to people. And when that is taken away, it's really catastrophic, you know, for, for the wellbeing of an individual, plus the group quality of care.

Like if you're in a care facility, you need to be understood. You know, and so that was really kind of that sort of meteoric moment where I was like, wow, this is a big problem. But I thought it was a small problem. I was like, it's a big problem for a very few people. but as I started doing research. On my own time, I started looking at this.

I said, Holy cow, there there's all these communities with individuals with lifelong disabilities or traumatic injuries or progressive disorders that are all affected by communication. And when I added it up, you know, I, I was reviewing stuff with the different associations, like the ALS society and autism society and autism speaks and cerebral palsy Alliance and all these different organizations.

And they were all doing their own respective research on sizing the market. And then when I added it all up and I said, all you guys are, you have some shared problem that we can solve at a systemic level if we do it right.

Robert Fenton: [00:05:17] So you're talking with the market, you found a bunch of people, you found the problems. It was a lot bigger and there's like a shared set of problems.

Andreas Forsland: [00:05:24] We were, we were literally going association by association talking to each of them and understanding like, you know, you have the cerebral palsy Alliance or you have the autism speaks group where you have, you know, the MS society or, you know, different organizations, Rett syndrome, and so on.

And we started to just kind of pull on this thread and say, what's going on here. Right? Like what we hear, what we're hearing amongst all these communities is a shared situation, right? Where you have a lot of different sort of disease classes or disorders or disabilities That all sort of present themselves in really unique ways, but what's common is the humanistic desire to be loved, to connect, to be understood.

And that usually comes in the form of communication. Right. And, and what we also learned was a lot of a huge part of the population. So there's about a half a billion. So 509 million people worldwide that have trouble being understood,  with communication, and that's related primarily to some form of disease or traumatic brain injury, et cetera.

and then when we start to drill down into that and say, well, a large percentage of that isn't cognitive, right. A large percentage of that is purely motor disability. So if you think about your nervous system, you know, you have your central nervous system, essentially, what's going on in your brain, you have your peripheral nervous system, which is essentially your spinal cord and all your nerves and your arms and everything.

typically it's a peripheral, nervous system problem, right? There's a lot of breakdowns that happen. And so you have cognitive ability. That's locked into a body that doesn't work so well. And oftentimes folks that are in that state such as Stephen Hawking or other folks,  could easily be misunderstood, right?

Like you would look at somebody like Stephen Hawking, if you didn't know who he was. And you'd say, Oh, poor guy, right? Like. Sorry for you, you know, but realistically, like if you can have technology available, that's affordable that useful and you can use it for everyday use.  Imagine how many people out there in the world are like Stephen Hawking that are just waiting for an awakening, right?

Like we work with a nuerologist, on our advisory council. And he's like, what you're doing is essentially. Like an awakening. I think there was a movie back in the eighties with Robin Williams, you know, and , this was the first time I had heard about like, thought about that, right? Like by introducing technology at scale, can we see a massive awakening, in society and also in the community?

Right because the world could look totally different if you could imagine a hundred million people, just even a fifth of the folks who are affected by communication, a hundred million people in the world that could be expressive and understood and doing things and kind of rolling with their life.

Like imagine what the world looks like. You know, you got a thousand Stephen Hawkins out there.

Robert Fenton: [00:07:59] It's insane. really inspirational, kind of narrative on that address. And I mean, newer tech did that exist. Was that like folks, the state of Newark tech queen, when you folks, that's a problem we're going to solve because I've peripheral understanding of the space, but I haven't seen anything like you guys were working on.

Andreas Forsland: [00:08:16] Yeah, in neuroscience and neuro technology has been around for hundreds of years, but it's been, it started out in the 1800s, a super rudimentary way, but some of the underlying science of what we're doing was actually created in the 1800s you know? So that's the irony is that most people don't know what neurotechnology is because most of it's been sort of locked up in labs.

You know, it's mostly been in laboratories or in hospitals or clinics, and most of the neuroscience or neurotechnology has been used in order for PhDs and postdocs to write papers, to get published on advancing the state of the art of what we know about the brain. Right. And so most brain computer interface technologies have served all the sole purpose of understanding the brain better. so that drug companies or hospitals or clinics can provide better therapeutics. You know, so it's really internet. It's always been an analysis tool, but there's always been the dream and there's been attempts to try and use. The brain, computer interface technology as a way to interact with the world.

Right. So if I can find a way to get a signal out of your noise of your brain and say, okay, there's a control signal here that you can latch onto and use. As someone who's using the BCI to do things right. To generate speech or to control things around you. That's what we want. Right. I think in everybody kind of wants that, you know, if you have a disability, but of course I find myself, you know, like when I was a kid I used to want to be, yeah.

I just wish people would read my mind. You know, some people are like, no, no, no, no, read my mind. You don't, you really don't want to know what I'm thinking. You know? So that's kind of a funny

Robert Fenton: [00:09:47] Can you install a toggle switch?

Andreas Forsland: [00:09:49] Yeah. Yeah. Flip, flip up the filter right now though. That's my inside voice.

Robert Fenton: [00:09:54] So I mean, you folks were recently recognized, I think, as like a top 21 startup  to watch in the space.

So it sounds like there's more companies trying to do. I think either external, like patient focused consumer focused products, which is really exciting based on what you just said. I mean, being public facing in particular with a medical indication, What was it, how was it like creating a regulatory approval or what kind of challenges did you face with that? If any?

Andreas Forsland: [00:10:23] Well, we're still facing it, like where that's, what we're looking. That's the, that's the tunnel we're looking to go through right now. Right? So we've done a lot of the technology development, feasibility market development, market validation. you know, so at this point we're. Parallel path thing, like going into production and then doing all of the, you know, collecting the evidence so that we can file our regulatory approvals.

Right. So we're going into the FDA with a 510k application. We'll be applying for CMS accreditation so that this could be funded through Medicare and Medicaid and private insurance. so that's what we're looking at right now. So getting through the, you know, talk to me in a year and I'll tell you sort of like what that looks like.

You know, in the meantime we're making, we're going to be making this technology available to scientists, through universities and clinical labs, so that they can get their hands on it earlier. and because they're already working with a lot of the folks that we're addressing in our healthcare.

Population. it's just, it's, it's really symbiotic, to allow scientists to have access to the technology first.

Robert Fenton: [00:11:24] What do you hope to learn by putting it for the scientists? I guess, I guess how, why fidelity do you have right now or the

technologies function? And I'm curious to see how that helps.

Andreas Forsland: [00:11:35] There's a number of organizations, around the world that are focused on doing research and analysis universities that are, that are researching, what's called assistive technology. Right so, working with those folks, a lot of them,  are also curious about using the BCI as a method for controlling the interface, , so that's not a new thing.

So we're going to be able to drop this platform into those research labs they can validate how quickly they can get it set up. It's a great alternative. So. You think about doing a neurology or a neuroscience research project? It's, it's messy, it's complicated. You have to integrate all these things to work together, just to even be set up to do your research.

And so this is kind of an out of the box ready to go system, right? Where if you think about, you've got an hour with a subject that you're going to be doing research and acquiring data from, you know, it might take 30 minutes to do the setup. You know, this is something that can set up in minutes and, you know, super fast, right?

So you're focusing more on research and data acquisition and whatever you're trying to do, as opposed to the set up process. So. you know, I think that's one is learning what we can do to help accelerate that setup. Because from a marketing perspective, remember I talked about the marketing work that I was doing before and Citrix and Phillips, and we have this thing called time to value TTV.

So time to value is a major, it's a psychology major, but it has a lot to do with, application design. So how quickly if I go from like seeing an ad to downloading an app and installing it on my phone and launching the app and having that first experience where I feel like, Oh, wow, aha. I had an epiphany.

Like, it's what I am. It's what I wanted. I did it. Wow. That's really cool. Right. So to have that euphoric moment of truth, there's a certain elapsed time that it takes for someone to have that aha moment that justifies  why they bought it, why they downloaded it. So our whole focus is how can we shrink the amount of time, that time to value with regards to a BCI.

So for our population that time, the value would be, I said my first words, all right. To go from like unboxing it to putting it on your head, to launching the application and. Orienting yourself within augmented reality and typing out your first word and saying it out loud or sending your first command to Alexa and being able to see the lights go on and off with a brain command.

I mean, that's, that's taking impossible things and making it possible, right?

Robert Fenton: [00:13:54] Yeah.  That that's exciting. and clearly there is a personal moment where you saw, like it add value to the world use case for what you're doing. Have you consumer plans for this as well? Or is that still a few evolutions away?

It's cause I like to, if I could sit here and write my emails, I mean...

Andreas Forsland: [00:14:11] Yeah. Yeah. I think it's an interesting question. So we consumer has always been on our roadmap. Right. But we realized that there's going to probably take a couple of iterations right on this, to get it to where the form factor and the price and the usefulness and the user experience is appropriate.

for that, you know, I think in general, consumers have been less than they have been sort of lukewarm to other BCI solutions that have come out  why you see a lot of consumer BCI for meditation and, and quantitative self, you know, because you're dealing with async, you're dealing with long, slow changes in brain state.

And so that lends itself really nicely for meditation or sleep studies, things like this. When you want to go to like a real-time control interface, you got to do some pretty hardcore engineering. Right. Like for real it's, it's, it's hard, it's hard engineering. 

Robert Fenton: [00:15:03] sounds it's the future?

Andreas Forsland: [00:15:04] yeah

Robert Fenton: [00:15:05] which means that this, this isn't cheap to do right? So we speak to a lot of people and every day I'm fortunate to speak to entrepreneurs and people with startups who are starting companies in this, like in healthcare, right? Sometimes it can be really fast and low cost get off the ground, but you're doing sounds like hard engineering, which doesn't seem massively accessible just to two people in the garage.

So how have you kind of like started funding this and scaling this out?

Andreas Forsland: [00:15:32] Well, we see like longterm, we want this kind of technology. So like we've filed a bunch of patents and a number of them have been granted so far. And we have a bunch that are pending on this because we see the future that there's a convergence where, know, major tech companies have ambitions to bring, you know, really small consumer-friendly augmented reality.

Glasses and so on to the market. So what we focused on is not trying to invent that reinvent the wheel for AR, but thinking about how does BCI play well with other sensors and specifically sensors that could be in a pair of eyeglasses, like what I'm wearing here. and so, you know, what, what we're looking at here with cognition one is in fact, you know, it's the first platform that gets us there.

but those companies that are looking at those. Multi-billion dollar investments, right? For advancing the state of the art of augmented reality. this is, this is the neural interface for that kind of context, right? So when those companies are saying, Hey, we need to put biometrics into really small consumer friendly glasses.

We already have the IP and the know how to do that. for us right now, as we're fundraising and building, you know, moving through building a startup and going through sort of one foot in front of the other, we just kind of looked and said, where's the sustainable market opportunity where the killer application, that the sign, you know, so like looking at all of the timing aspect, like where's the timing right across the business money, you know, need,  Enabling conditions.

It's kind of like, it's just a perfect storm for us right now for this care.  But it does require it's like the perfect storm, but you need a vote to go out into that store. Right. You can't just go out and do.

Robert Fenton: [00:17:04] Absolutely. But good thing is there's a growing number of companies that are part of this.

I call it like, there's this revolution happening right now in healthcare what it means to be a medical device or like a life sciences ecosystem. Participant is not at all what it would have maintained years ago, PAI prop forms. Brain-computer interfaces. It's I think this is like, we're entering a golden age right now.

Where is this whole new unlocking of applications because of lessons learned, right? Like your background, you didn't. Study medicine and work in a hospital for 10 years. You were in another field and risking this pollination, I think right now from other industries into healthcare. So I think, I think it's, I think it's pretty awesome.

I applaud, applaud what you do. Any, any lessons learned? So come back just out of your journey. If you were speaking to  your 16 year old self or the next people trying to start a company in this space, is there anything in particular kind of stands out like, Hey boss, any piece of advice?

Andreas Forsland: [00:17:59] Yeah.

There's a lot of it probably yeah.

Robert Fenton: [00:18:02] Probably a book worth

Andreas Forsland: [00:18:04] Yeah. Well, the funny thing is like on the outside, looking in, right? You say we're a BCI company or neurotech company, and then the general consumer or the uninitiated might lump everybody together. So I get a lot of questions of like, well, what do you think about Elon Musk and EarthLink?

And I'm like, I'm stoked about what he's doing. And it's, you know, it's like, it's fantastic, you know, he's like, you know, what do you think about synchrotron or these other, you know,  or these other folks. And I'm like, I'm excited about what they're doing because if you actually, explode the view of the problems they're solving.

It's as diverse  as the brain itself.  And  you know, of the top 10 BCI companies of which we're one of them, you know, we're all kind of complimentary in many ways, you know, we're doing different things in different ways, you know, but we're all what we have in common is we're all dealing with like neurosignals and,  trying to improve the human condition.

so what I would tell my 16 year old self right, is I think we all love the shiny object. We all love the widget. You know, we love to create the technology. I mean, I fall prey to that often as falling in love with the solution. but realistically I think for an entrepreneur, you really have to fall in love with the problem.

You have to really cause you can come out the problem from multiple ways, you know? And so we fell in love with this problem. In 2014, you know, , and we attempted multiple ways at it. And so we ended up with neuroscience as like our third or fourth different way at the problem, you know, so, and it's the one, that's the right one but it took some time to kind of do that.

And you can, you can really go astray and burn a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of wasted energy pursuing the wrong solutions. Right. If you're focused on just the tech. Yeah,

I think that's a really eloquent way to, finish our chat today. I think that's, won't be supervised and a lot of people need to hear, I see it myself too, I think.

Robert Fenton: [00:20:00] Yeah. Thank you for sharing that so eloquently. that's all I have for you today, man. Thank you so much for joining and sharing some of your journey. I'm going to be following what you folks are up to. And this brave new world that we're entering into. I think in 10 years time, you'll look back and  reflect on where we are in 2021. It will be a different world.

Andreas Forsland: [00:20:19] Absolutely. Robert, thanks for having me.