Why you should care
Because this could be the next big thing in sports.
Water and electricity don’t mix. So we’re told. But in an all-white research room — whiteboard walls, white table — off San Francisco’s hectic Market Street, Daniel Chao sprays small egg-crate-shaped pieces of gray rubber with a watery saline solution. It’s headed for my scalp. He pops them into the headband of what looks like a pair of black Beats headphones. I slip them on. He pulls out his iPhone, opens up a sleek app and hits Start. I wait for the electric currents to start pulsating through my head.
What happens is less Frankenstein, more effervescent. A warm tingling sensation, like a burgeoning sunburn. Halo Sport, this neurostimulator headset, purports to stimulate the motor cortex to build new brain circuits, making you stronger, better, faster, etc. It works in the part of the brain where you build skill, strength and power. Drawing on techniques known as transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) and transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) — which send low-voltage pulses of electricity into the brain — Halo tries to help the motor cortex fire more refined nerve impulses to build those brain circuits.
The idea behind all the jargon: Athletes can use Halo Sport while working out, training the brain to send stronger signals to muscles, thereby activating more muscle fibers. (The headset plays music too — it’d better, for $750 a pop.) It might sound crackpotty. Chao, 44, is the CEO and cofounder of Halo Neuroscience and one of a wave of scientists working fast outside the academy, in Startuplandia, zooming quicker than peer review can keep pace with. There are skeptics, but, says Marom Bikson, codirector of neural engineering at the City College of New York, the underlying idea is right on: “The fact tDCS can change the brain is considered factual by any scientist.” Bikson, who studies the effects of electricity on the brain, says this technology can enhance mental performance and in turn can “change people’s performance in sports.” The company, he says, has built Halo “on the best possible science they can.”
Why can’t I do rigorous research in a startup to discover and create new technologies?
Since pro athletes are already functioning close to their innate athletic potential, Chao’s goal is to eke out single-digit-percentage-point improvements in skill and strength. Take the U.S. Olympic ski team, one of Chao’s customers. Ski jumpers saw a 31 percent increase in jump force, compared to 18 percent for the control in Halo’s double-blind study. Chao recounts seeing the impact of a few seconds: When he joined the team at the World Championships in Vail, the men’s downhill champ’s time was 102 seconds. Twentieth place? 104. If you’re not first, you’re last.
The wrinkles: Some, like John Krakauer, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and coauthor of a well-cited paper on motor cortex stimulation, cry caution. “I’m not saying the whole thing is a crock, but it may not be doing what we think it’s doing,” he says. Krakauer, whose research shows stimulation caused skill improvement of 40 to 45 percent, asks: “Would you want your kid wearing this during tennis practice with no idea of the long-term consequences?” He says he’ll wait for a “published, scientifically controlled, peer-reviewed paper,” thank you very much.
Scientists have been trying to electrify the brain since the 1700s. The 19th century saw a craze, with doctors throwing electrodes on brains as a frenzied cure-all. Blame Freud for kicking it out of fashion in the 20th century. But in 2000, the fringe tech reemerged when a German neuroscientist named Michael Nitsche established that tDCS could change neurophysiology. Since then, there’s been an explosion of scientific studies — more than 400 in 2014 alone — following tDCS and TES’s impact on everything from mental health to math skills. The research is vast — but nascent.
It’s that research potential that got Chao some of his funding from multibillion-dollar venture firm Andreessen Horowitz before he even knew what product he would produce. (The firm did not comment.) It makes sense that Chao began in the lab. A biochemistry major at UC Berkeley, he landed, quite accidentally, in the UCSF neuroscience lab of the well-known neuroscientist David Bredt, now global head of neuroscience discovery at Johnson & Johnson. Together they launched a lab from scratch, ordering DNA gels and test tubes, working day and night, startup style. Chao published eight papers in two years by the time he was 24, as many as a typical professor, says Bredt. The research led to new treatment options for muscular dystrophy. He calls Chao a “courageous and bold” scientist.
The overachieving continued: an MS and MD from Stanford, a “mini MBA” at McKinsey. Then, biz: Before Halo there was NeuroPace, a brain pacemaker for epileptics, which reduces seizures by upward of 50 percent. It costs up to 40 grand and took him over 10 years and $250 million to win FDA approval. Two and a half years in, Halo, by contrast, has $9 million in venture funding so far.
This time around, Chao’s product sits outside the FDA’s reach, since the electric output is so low, though a version that aims to help with stroke recovery is undergoing FDA testing. Turns out he’s still got that medical bug. And he says they self-regulate, stringently. “Why can’t I do rigorous research in a startup to discover and create new technologies?” But already, it’s way more than research: Chao has three MLB teams using Halo Sport during spring training. Plus two dozen college players who attended this year’s NFL scouting combine. After that? The NBA, he hopes. And in this geek game, it’s just the first quarter.