Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that’s even better than Neuralink

Editor’s note: This article comes from the WeChat public number “Silicon Star People” (ID:guixingren123)

When it comes to brain-computer interface, what will you think of first?

Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink

Is it Musk’s face will immediately appear in front of your eyes, followed by his three little pigs and playing the game of monkey.

Under Musk’s advocacy, brain-computer interface technology seems to be equated with science fiction in recent years, and his picture of using thoughts to summon Tesla, play computer games, control home appliances, and even human-computer symbiosis makes people’s adrenaline rush, Neuralink’s every move involves the public’s nerves, and after each conference, people shout “the future has come! Musk is going to bring humans to immortality!”

Driven by Musk’s “divine power”, Neuralink’s research results have been infinitely magnified under the spotlight, and Neuralink has directly become a synonym for brain-computer interface in many people’s minds.

But in fact, brain-computer interface technology (BCI) has been continuously researched in the field of neuroscience for decades, and many companies have been working on it for years, and it is even more advanced than Neuralink in terms of technology. And about this fact, Musk’s “good brother” and legendary Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel may also have recently realized.

This time, he did not support Tesla and SpaceX as early as the united front with Musk, but abandoned the booming Neuralink, and unexpectedly invested in a little-known brain-computer interface company to challenge Musk.

A mysterious brain-computer interface company, more powerful than Neuralink
Before the deal was disclosed in late May, the company called Blackrock Neurotech was virtually unknown in the world of the Internet, even though the $10 million investment was the company’s first funding round since its founding in 2008.

Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink

Blackrock Neurotech’s funding, image via Crunchbase

Like Neurualink, Blackrock Neurotech, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is also focused on the development and application of brain-machine interface technology, but the two companies have completely different styles – one looks up to the sky, the other bury their heads in the sand.

Although Neurualink is still in the stage of animal experiments, people always have a sense of uncertainty about Neurualink, thinking that they are doing something big to change the future fate of human beings, but often miss the point mentioned by Musk: Neuralink’s main goal at this stage is to solve medical problems such as brain and spinal injuries.

Compared to the grand blueprint of Neuralink, Blackrock Neurotech is more grounded, targeting medical applications of brain-computer interfaces from its inception.

The two founders of Blackrock Neurotech, one a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah and the other a medical technology entrepreneur from Oxford University, have been leading their team for 12 years, quietly doing research and commercialization in the field of brain-computer interfaces without much fanfare or investment.

Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink

Image screenshot from Blackrock Neurotech website

Although little known, Blackrock has long developed a complete suite of hardware and software products related to brain-computer interface technology, and by selling these products to the neuroscience research community, the company has been profitable year after year since 2015.

Some might say that Neuralink’s goal is not to provide tools for the research community, but to continue to experiment for the benefit of all humanity. But in fact, while Neuralink is still working on monkeys and three little pigs, Blackrock has already succeeded in human experiments on brain-computer interfaces.

According to Blackrock’s website, there are currently 30 brain-computer interface implant patients worldwide, 28 of whom are using Blackrock’s technology, and these patients are located in the United States, China and Europe, and they have also established long-term partnerships with hundreds of world-leading research institutions and more than 20 clinical centers.

In Blackrock’s experiments over the years, several “firsts” in human brain-computer interface applications have been created: for example, the first to provide tetraplegic patients with the ability to control robotic limbs directly from their brains; the first to allow patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to control auditory spelling through their brains It is the first to enable ALS patients to communicate with people again through brain-controlled auditory spellers.

It has successfully enabled some paralyzed people to move, speak, and sense again.

Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink
Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink
Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink

Blackrock brain implant patient case, image from Blackrock website

Blackrock is the only company in the world with an implantable penetrating array of nearly 100 electrodes per device and is FDA-cleared for human use.

The company began seeking investment this year because it has received more orders and contracts than it can run, and the demand for frontier and experimental fields has expanded further, while the brain-computer interface devices they are developing will be explored from the experimental stage to commercial applications.

In addition to the brain-computer interface chip, they are also developing less invasive wireless devices such as helmets and headsets to help read neurological information from the brain, Blackrock said, adding that their first commercial device will be launched next year to help patients with severe physical and neurological damage regain some of their functionality.

Compared to Blackrock, which already has a clear commercial landing plan and trial results, Neuralink, which has not yet obtained permission to conduct human trials, is clearly a cut behind in the experimental process and commercial landing.

Musk’s vows, Neuralink’s uncertain future
Although Neuralink is currently considered a “hot chick” among many startups in Silicon Valley with Musk’s strong support, the lack of a product on the ground and the recent changes in the top management have put a layer of fog on Neurallink’s development prospects.

In early May, Neuralink’s co-founder Max Hodak officially announced his departure from the company.

Whether his sudden departure is due to business considerations or he does not see the application prospect of the technology is not known yet, which also makes the development status of Neuralink more confusing.

Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink

Image from Max Hodak’s personal Twitter feed

There’s no denying that Neuralink has released some impressive research in its five years of existence. For example, in 2019, it released the first sewing-machine-like device that can implant thin wires of 4-6 microns in width into the brain; in August 2020, it relaunched a coin-sized brain-computer interface implant device and demonstrated it live with three piglets; and in April this year, it released a video of a monkey implanted with a brain-computer device playing games with its mind.

Compared to Blackrock, experts believe Neuralink’s current brain-computer interface implant device is also much more powerful than Blackrock’s because it has more recording sites than Blackrock’s device and can record more brain cell activity.

However, Neuralink’s research has been subject to industry skepticism. Many neuroscience researchers believe Neuralink is not revolutionary in the field of neuroscience research at this time, and that operations like monkeys playing games were possible many years ago. And although their design of implanting electrodes into the brain and wireless devices is innovative enough in terms of engineering, it has not been widely proven yet and is more gimmicky than practical.

Miguel Nicolelis, a professor at Duke University who is known as the “father of brain-computer interfaces,” has even said directly that Musk knows nothing about neuroscience or what the brain is.

Although faced with team shakeups and external questions, Musk has continued to do as he pleases, not only pushing back against the academic community saying their lack of focus on practical ideas is “unfortunate,” but also saying he wants to continue to expand the size of the staff to 1,000 and inviting researchers from all walks of life to join Neuralink at the conference.

And in an interview a week ago, Musk talked about Neuralink and once again made a surprising statement. He said that the innovative brain chip being developed will make human language may die out in 5 to 10 years, from then on humans will no longer need to use traditional language. But this argument, but also reminds people of years ago Musk had vowed that Tesla in 2019 will achieve fully autonomous driving, the results? We all understand.

However, in the eyes of many Neuralink supporters, there is no “technology dreamer” Musk’s pie-in-the-sky ideas, there will be no Tesla and SpaceX, so the dream of human-machine symbiosis should still be there, in case it is realized one day.

Musk vs Peter Thiel, who will bet on success?
In fact, the main reason why Blackrock Neurotech can attract a lot of attention this time is because it has the support of Peter Thiel.

Peter Thiel and Musk, the two genius “geeks” in Silicon Valley, after a long friendship run from rivals to business partners, and from parting ways to partners, never thought that they would be back to the position of competitors in the field of brain-computer interface.

In Silicon Valley, the “PayPal Mafia” led by Peter Thiel and Musk can be said to be unknown to everyone, and the technology companies founded by former PayPal employees and associated with them now occupy almost half of Silicon Valley.

The reason they are called the “Mafia” is that they have a gang camaraderie, and once a member needs help with money and technology, they will lend a hand to each other. Among them, Peter Theil, a successful technology entrepreneur and angel investor, is the soul of the group.

He is not only the founder of several heavyweight companies such as PayPal and Palantir, but also the uncle of star companies such as Facebook, Stripe and LinkedIn, as well as an investment thinker who authored the book “From 0 to 1”.

Peter Thiel invests in a brain-computer interface company that's even better than Neuralink

Panorama of PayPal Mafia, image via low Down

In previous media interviews, former PayPal employees have said that if someone needs money or advice on company development, they will call other members, and if someone lacks both, they will call Peter Thiel.

In addition to providing early investments to companies founded by former colleagues such as Linkedin and Yelp, Peter Thiel has also been supporting his former partner Musk in his various “brainstorming” endeavors. He has not only provided early investments for Tesla and SpaceX, but also never hesitated to praise Musk, even publicly calling him a great innovator comparable to Steve Jobs.

But this time, I don’t know if he really doesn’t think much of Neuralink’s future or wants to challenge Musk, Peter Thiel chose to side with Neuralink’s competitors.

Although it is not yet known who is better before the products of the two companies are released on a large scale, it is foreseeable that in the future, in addition to Neuralink, there will be more companies in the field of brain-computer interfaces coming into the public eye, and people can have a more rational understanding of what brain-computer interfaces can bring to people at the moment.

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