Arye Barnehama and Laura Berman, who would have been seniors at Pomona College this year, discontinued their studies of cognitive and computer science to create an EEG sensor headset that aims to help people learn to better control their brains.
On Wednesday evening, Barnehama and Berman returned to Pomona to give a talk about Axio, the company they founded to produce these headsets.
The headsets track the level of mental focus in real-time through three silver electrodes and provide positive reinforcement audio feedback when the wearer is mentally locked-in.
“We have a graph that updates every second to see how focused you are,” Berman said. “Only one electrode channels through the data; the other two are there to clean up the data. Your brain gives off different waves that come up in different strengths. We look at theta-beta ratios and their relative strengths to other wave forms. Right around 18 Hertz is your ideal focus mental state.”
Education and athletics are the biggest markets for Axio right now.
“This tool kit can train kids with ADD or ADHD; a lot of the feedback protocols are similar to those used in clinical setting,” Barnehama said.
Berman, who played golf at Pomona, helped design the sports-related aspects of the business.
“In real-time, [your brain] is a feedback loop. If you deliver positive enforcement in a short amount of time—within 1/100 of a second—the brain can automatically adjust and learn on its own to improve,” she said.
Barnehama and Berman started their project by proposing the idea to NeuroSky in San Jose, Calif. in the beginning of their sophomore year at Pomona. They later entered the 7Cs Kravis Entrepreneurship Competition at the end of the spring semester of 2011. Although they did not place, they felt that their project would turn into something big.
“I was working in [the Framingham Heart Study] research lab and was introduced to a lot of brain imaging and technologies [on] neuro-feedbacks. The headband [we are designing] measures brain activity and we can correlate the specific mental state data to focus. The headband is connected through a Bluetooth to a phone or tablet that helps with monitoring or training,” Barnehama said. “One of our apps we have right now is for coaches and they can watch on their tablet the physical events that correlate to mental events of athletes.”
While studying abroad in Greece during the fall of their junior year, they conducted research by monitoring brain waves of colleagues who played Lumosity games and listened to different types of music. Barnehama also met Bill Warner, the founder of Avid Technology, who became the first investor in their research project.
Later that fall when Barnehama and Berman won admission into Haxlr8r, a new accelerated program for start-ups working on hardware in Shenzhen, China, they decided to take the project seriously and discontinued their studies at Pomona.
“When we showed up, we had nothing,” Berman said about their arrival in China in February 2012.
Three months later, Barnehama and Berman came back to the states with their first prototype.
“The best lesson we learned in China was to stick to your guns,” Barnehama said. “You have to stick to your core mission or you will never get anything done.”
“While in Shenzhen, we walked through factories and learned about injection molding and the tooling that goes along, as well as the expenses of building a hardware product,” Barnehama said. “We had many difficulties. Our biggest low point came with the Venture Capital firm we worked with. [But] if you’re not having difficulties, [then] you’re not doing something worthwhile. [If] it’s too easy, it’s probably not going to create value. Take a leap of faith and make it beyond the hypothetical,” Barnehama said.
“We went about five straight months and didn’t really have any big difficulties. And then once we hit our real big one, and worked our way through that, we realized that difficulties are the most important things that can happen for your business,” Berman said.
“My biggest worry is when you don’t know what you don’t know. The greatest challenge is to not let yourself fall into that trap, and I went down that path a lot. You just have to keep building heads down and make something badass,” Barnehama added.
Axio pushed through these difficulties and is launching their first product for the market in six months. Neither Berman nor Barnehama plan to return to Pomona.