UW News

June 21, 2007

Husband’s thesis starts wife’s business

UW News

Computer science alumna Suzanna Kovoor started a company in January selling implantable brain chips. The company, called Neumio, has its headquarters in the basement of her Bellevue home. When she has a question for the technology’s inventor, she doesn’t have far to travel — the device was created by her husband, Jaideep Mavoori, as part of his doctoral thesis at the UW.

Kovoor studied computer science in a completely different area, she said. But she saw potential in her husband’s device.

“I was interested in commercializing it on a small scale because I saw how useful it could be [for neuroscientists],” said Kovoor, who graduated from the UW in 2002 with a master’s degree in computer science. “I didn’t want his thesis to gather dust in a corner.”

After Mavoori’s graduation last fall the couple approached the University’s TechTransfer Office to ask about starting a company. Mavoori had already accepted a job at NeuroVista, a local biotech company. So Kovoor drew on her technical training, threw in some seed money, and founded a company.

Neumio’s product is a tiny computer attached to an implant that records lab animals’ brain signals. The device lets researchers probe the brain almost unnoticed.

“In most experiments the primate is placed in a chair and it’s surrounded by a rack system and it’s immobile,” Kovoor said. The Neumio device is among newer gadgets that allow the animal to move around. Kovoor describes it as an “implantable computer the size of a wad of gum.” The system weighs less than 10 grams and can be adapted for different critters — early work at the UW with an even smaller version included experiments in flying moths and in a sea slug at the bottom of Puget Sound.

In 2003 Mavoori, then a doctoral student in electrical engineering, worked with Chris Diorio, professor of computer science & engineering, and Tom Daniel, professor of biology, to create a computer chip that could be implanted in moths to stimulate and record brain and muscular signals during flight. Experiments showed the moths continued flitting around, seemingly oblivious of the electronic eavesdropping.

Mavoori later teamed up with Eberhard Fetz, a UW professor of biology and biophysics, and Andrew Jackson, then a postdoctoral researcher in physiology at the UW. The team recorded primates’ brain signals and used those signals to generate an electric response, creating what Fetz calls a “recurrent brain-computer interface.” The physiologists studied how the animal’s responses changed over time. Last November the team published an article in the journal Nature describing how the brain adjusted to the stimulus, remapping neural pathways in a way that might help patients recover from brain injuries.

“It’s a fairly new field,” Fetz remarked of scientists using computers to interact with the brain. He will use Neumio’s chips to carry out follow-up experiments.

Typically, when members of the UW community commercialize a technology, they make a consumer product, said Kelly FitzGerald, a technology manager in the UW’s TechTransfer Office. Kovoor, on the other hand, approached her to meet a need in the research community.

“The people doing the research are neuroscientists, not engineers, but they need this key piece of technology,” FitzGerald said. “I thought that was interesting.”

Although TechTransfer has worked with husband-and-wife teams before, FitzGerald said this was the first time someone contacted her seeking to commercialize their spouse’s invention.

Kovoor has sold eight of the devices to the UW so far and has requests from other universities, she said. The current market is for neurobiologists. She plans to start the business slowly and expand her customer base by word of mouth. She said she is developing new features for a next-generation model of the chip.

Kovoor designs the circuits and tests prototypes in her basement and hires an outside company to build the circuit boards. She recently finished creating a brochure and a company Web site. Running a one-woman business is never dull, she said. “I’m the chief architect, engineer, coder and debugger,” she said. “It’s exciting.”