The ‘black sheep’ brain chip start-up backed by Bezos and Gates

Dr Tom Oxley
Dr Tom Oxley won funding for his brain chip idea from Darpa, the US military research division, after pitching in 2010 - ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

When 29-year-old Noland Arbaugh was finally given free rein to use his Neuralink brain chip, he was able to enjoy something that had once been impossible.

“I stayed up till, geez, 6am playing Civilisation VI,” Arbaugh, who was left paralysed in a diving accident eight years ago, said in a video posted to X (formerly Twitter). Despite his disability, he had been able to effortlessly binge on the popular computer strategy game – using only his brainwaves.

“It was like using [Star Wars’] The Force,” he said in the video. “I can’t even describe how cool it is.”

Arbaugh is the first human patient to be implanted with a Neuralink chip, the “brain computer interface” – or BCI – that has been developed by Elon Musk’s company. It aims to give paralysed people a level of freedom they have lost by letting them communicate with a computer through thought alone.

If Musk is to be believed, Neuralink will one day do much more than that. Its chip, which is weaved into a person’s brain under their skull, will allow the blind to see, people to communicate telepathically and even act as a way to meld the human mind with artificial intelligence – or so the billionaire claims.

While Neuralink is the most eye-catching and best-known company trying to put chips in people’s brains, it is not the only one.

“We are the black sheep” of the industry, says Dr Tom Oxley, the 43-year-old founder of Synchron.

The Australian neurosurgeon’s start-up is also attempting to make brain chips fit for humans. “The best way to think of it is like a bluetooth controller coming out of your brain,” Oxley says.

Its technology is passingly similar to that of Neuralink. However, unlike Musk’s chip, Synchron’s technology doesn’t require a patient to undergo complex surgery with a high tech robot in a special clinic.

Instead, its technology relies on a decades-old invention in the form of a stent – commonly used for heart conditions. This technique uses a hollow tube inserted into an artery or vein, which can then be used as a pathway.

Synchron’s Stentrode microchip is pushed through a blood vessel into a patient’s brain via a catheter – where it can begin to pick up brainwaves.

Stentrode Close Up
A close-up of Synchron's Stentrode device - Synchron

Oxley, a neurointerventionist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says Synchron’s simpler technique could see it expand “globally over the next couple of years” if it passes crucial upcoming trials.

“To achieve scale, what we don’t need to do – which is what companies like Neuralink need to do – is basically build robots in surgical centres that can make this happen,” Oxley, who is based in New York and Australia, says.

Synchron’s logic is that it could reach far more patients with its simple technique than a company that requires brain surgery.

His less invasive form of brain implant has captured the imagination of Silicon Valley – and attracted cash from Musk’s rivals. Synchron has raised more than $140m from investors including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.

Oxley began his career as a medic. His friend and co-founder Rahul Sharma worked in the “flashy part of medicine” – cardiology. Oxley, on the other hand, “fell in love with the brain”.

Scientists have been exploring whether computers can be connected to the human brain for the last two decades, but it is only in the last few years that breakthroughs in surgical techniques, ever smaller microchips and more advanced smartphones and tablets have allowed BCIs to become a possibility.

Synchron was envisaged by Oxley well before Musk’s endeavour launched in 2016. He came up with the idea for implanting a chip using a stent while at Melbourne University in the late 2000s, pitching the idea to Darpa, the US military research division, in a cold call in 2010.

The innovation agency, which was instrumental in the development of new technologies such as GPS, jumped on the idea, providing early capital.

After years of research, Oxley delivered a TED talk to a rapturous reception in 2017, capturing the interest of Silicon Valley. A 2022 funding round brought in heavyweight investors including Bezos Expeditions, the Gates Foundation and Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance.

Synchron’s brain chip is able to pick up signals that allow the operator to use an iPhone or iPad in its accessibility mode, which is designed for those with disabilities

“We take it for granted a little bit how important these devices have become in our lives,” Oxley says. “Things like text messaging, emailing, shopping banking, healthcare access, all of that happens on the phone.”

He adds: “There’s a large number of conditions that can stop you from being able to use your phone, a stroke, ALS [motor neurone disease], spinal cord injury.”

Oxley believes Synchron’s technology will be able to reach more patients more quickly than rivals relying on surgery.

He says: “We think we are moving faster along the clinical, regulatory timeline, because we have decades of history behind us around technology that goes into the body using the blood vessels.”

Still, there are theoretical drawbacks to using a stent against directly wiring a gadget into the brain. With the stent-chip resting in a blood vessel, there is more “noise” that makes it harder to read signals from the brain.

Synchron’s stent, for instance, can’t yet pick up a movement as detailed as, say, a mouse moving across a screen.

“It’s a trade-off,” Oxley admits. However, he believes the device will still prove revolutionary as it will allow access to phone features that are currently out of reach to millions.

The field of BCI is advancing rapidly. Last year, a paralysed man from the Netherlands, Gert-Jan Oskam, was able to walk again after implants were attached to his brain and spine. He had been paralysed in a cycling accident over 12 years ago. The British Government’s Aria lab is also exploring whether such chips could soon be ready for mass adoption.

Clearly, Neuralink’s success with Arbaugh, its first patient, is a landmark moment for the nascent technology. But what of Musk’s more outlandish claims of telepathic brainwaves or AI-symbiosis? Do those prophecies help or hinder the more pressing healthcare goals?

“I don’t think it helps, necessarily,” Oxley says. “It is not why we are coming to work and I don’t think the concept that we need to merge with computers is what is driving the need for BCI to come into reality.

“On the other hand, I do believe this technology is at the beginning of a journey – where this overcomes inherent limitations of how our bodies engage with our brain.”

As brain chips advance, people may soon be able to “share their inner experiences in a way that is not possible with your body,” he adds, noting that with this will come a host of questions over data privacy and who can access our deepest thoughts.

Synchron still has to prove the mettle of its own technology. In 2020, it demonstrated how its stent can translate thoughts into actions on a computer screen with motor neurone patient Philip O’Keefe. It is now in trials with the US Federal Drug Administration and has been working on a manufacturing process to mass produce its stents.

“We had to develop an entirely new manufacturing technique,” Oxley says.

To get to the next stage, Synchron needs more money. Oxley says: “We have a large amount of money we need to raise to get this done and we will be doing another fund-raise in the near future.”

The start-up’s technology has already been implanted into 10 patients in trials across the US and Australia. Its next trial could include dozens of patients.

“It is not as fast as what you can do with your hands,” Oxley says, “but it is life-changing for people who have lost the ability to use their hands at all.”