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BRAIN Initiative Will Tap Our Best Minds

The new BRAIN Initiative, recently announced by the White House as an effort to comprehensively map brain processes, has a cadre of backers in San Diego and could have important implications on brain research locally.

Qualcomm Inc. has positioned itself as a frontrunner in the new project, along with UC San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The Obama administration will initially invest more than $100 million nationwide in the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) research project, which will stretch over several years to stoke a new wave of neurological research and treatment funding.

San Diego-based NeuroVigil Inc. is on the cutting-edge of brain research. Philip Low, the private brain research startup’s founder and CEO, said he’s been working with the White House for nearly two years helping shape the initiative.

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And on the heels of the announcement, Low said he’s been invited to Israel to help spearhead an effort to launch that country’s own BRAIN Initiative.

“The (U.S.) initiative is a very positive step,” Low said. “The money is actually very little. In fact, if you look at the proposal, the amount being committed in some cases includes researchers’ salaries — so there’s very little new money. If the resources are quite limited in the beginning, it behooves us to really make the most with these resources.”

NeuroVigil is a privately funded company with backers that include Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm. One of the company’s key advisers is celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking. The company, founded in 2007 when Low was a graduate student at UCSD, has about a dozen employees and is preparing to open a second office in the Bay Area.

Avoiding VC Funding’s Limitations

“We resisted venture funding, because traditional VC-backed companies are usually forced to focus on one particular application, then exit,” Low said. “The brain is a challenging organ to work with, and we didn’t want to limit ourselves — which is what could be great about this government initiative. It could give other small companies a chance to work with less restriction.”

NeuroVigil is developing noninvasive techniques to measure brain activity, such as its iBrain — a matchbox-sized device that can, in a basic way, “read thoughts.”

Low said that his company has sufficient funding for the time being, but may try to receive some of the $100 million offered by the BRAIN Initiative — in part because he was involved in its genesis.

“I think the BRAIN Initiative funding would be better suited for small companies and academics,” Low said. “A lot of innovation occurs at small companies like ours, where there’s a high concentration of highly creative people, and they just need resources to hire more and more people. Large companies move quite slowly by comparison.”

More than 200 researchers and brain-mapping stakeholders were at the initiative’s recent unveiling.

Low said that the government has remained generally tight-lipped over who has been involved in the BRAIN Initiative.

“It’s interesting the way they’ve done this — we didn’t necessarily know who else the White House was talking to. The very day of the unveiling, we didn’t know how many other people were going to be there — or who they were,” Low said. “It led to a lot of people thinking they were the fathers or mothers of the proposal, when they really weren’t.”

Qualcomm On Board

Matt Grob, chief technology officer of Qualcomm, said the BRAIN Initiative aims to develop new tools to collect and process large-scale brain activity, and build a new theoretical framework to understand brain activity as a whole. He was present at the White House unveiling.

“Given Qualcomm’s rich heritage in wireless communications, we are well positioned to make contributions to the BRAIN Initiative,” said Grob.

The Qualcomm research team includes neuroscientists and applied mathematicians with a background in developing computer modeling of brain chemical networks.

The company incubates a smaller startup called Brain Corp., which will also be involved in the initiative. Brain Corp. develops algorithms based on the functioning of the nervous system, as they apply to vision, motor control and navigation. It is working with partners to design specialized hardware that will bring to market the next generation of smart consumer products with artificial nervous systems, it said on its website. No one at Brain Corp. was available for comment.

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