Dr. André Fenton is a Professor of Neural Science at the NYU Center for Neural Science. André studies how brains store experiences as memories, and how the expression of knowledge activates information that is relevant without activating what is irrelevant. His laboratory uses molecular, electrophysiological, behavioral, engineering, and theoretical methods to investigate these fundamental and interrelated issues in neuroscience. Dr. Fenton is an internationally-recognized electrophysiologist trained in the extracellular recording of brain activity from freely-moving rats. He is also the founder & president of BioSignal Group, which advances the concept of developing tiny devices that wirelessly records brain data from rodents -- by miniaturizing EEG machines to measure brain activity in people.
We sat down with Dr. Andre Fenton to learn about him and his entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us about yourself.
I try to understand how the human brain computes information and stores information, which is the memory. In order to do that, it requires the use of new technologies. This is where my entrepreneurial side meets science.
Everything I do, I look with an entrepreneurial aim, motivation, and target. My core motivation helps understand data which understand brain function.
Describe the process of founding BioSignal Group and any interesting stories about the company/team
BioSignal Group started as a technology to make it easier and more feasible to collect brain activity from rats and mice from my lab. I realized that this should be available in hospitals. Thus, I started the commercialization process of building a medical device that could do that. I co-invented an earlier digital telemetry technology from which the current microEEG system evolved.
The entrepreneurial process was not straightforward. While living in Prague and running a lab, I built certain tools for lab research. During my free time, I played squash every morning with a close friend, Alexander Borovik, who advised me to form a company.
I made a deal with Borovik and founded the company with him as my co-founder. He would do all the “business stuff,” since he was well known in the community and could get lots of people to do things for free.
In short, we began without a very clear idea of how to begin.
I have access to neuroscience knowledge - that’s truly useful in some way. I quickly hired a co-founding engineer from his lab at Prague. Then realized we needed someone to actually run the company.
I had wished we could find someone like John Gridley, who had previously worked as a Finance and Business Development Director of an internet software startup, Centrum Holdings BV. At the time he was employed by PricewaterhouseCoopers where he raised finance for early stage technology companies.
It occurred to us to then ask John to run BioSignal Group, though the concept was very fuzzy. We knew how to exploit neuroscience commercially, but not sure what they were. Then I needed a CTO. I thought to myself, how do we find someone like Jim Dunnett?
In the end, I knew the right people but just had to ask them. The company continued to grow and we brought friends and family onboard until we could raise money.
As we were growing, we realized that we had good people on the team but we questioned what could we actually do to make a huge impact. We quickly realized that it wasn’t worth making stuff only for animal research.
Either we could do animal research or pursue the epilepsy path and build technology that would enable those discoveries. We raised money on that basis. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded us through a SBIR/STTR grant.
The SBIR and STTR programs are congressionally-mandated set-aside programs for domestic small business concerns to engage in Research/Research and Development (R/R&D) that has the potential for commercialization.
Then something lucky happened...
NIH called me. The U.S. government at the time was concerned that there would be a nerve gas attack. I could make something that would detect a seizure, offering grants for technologies that can do that. I realized quickly that this was useless. This needs to be used in emergency medicine and had to be FDA approved. It is difficult to test something if it’s for a nerve gas attack.
John hired a consultant firm. It was expensive to figure out the reimbursement landscape for the medical device, EEG. We received a report on how to get reimbursed for EEG, which is one of the smartest things that we did. It made it very clear how we should design our device.
We had something that could be proved. We realized that we needed to design our product differently so that it would be a commercially viable product. We added more channels to the EEG so that it could meet requirements and could be considered a commercially viable product. It made us look at our design in the view of a customer.
We often hear that there is tension between academic and commercial endeavors and an all-too-common belief that the two are incompatible. What is your take on it?
In many ways, tech commercialization is not compatible in academia. Academics are motivated for doing something new and encouraged to change minds. This is the worst way to market something. Academics are trained to teach people. It took a lot of mistakes to appreciate that.
What is your advice for other faculty members at NYU to pursue entrepreneurship
Whereas in your lab, you as a faculty member, are the smartest person in the field. Though, in the commercial world, you need to depend on other people. What other people offer is valuable. You can measure value in a lot of different ways.
I am trained to understand things but there is a lot of know-how and experience that people know through best practice. I was lucky that I founded BioSignal Group with two professionals who are close friends of mine and trust.
In your perspective, what is the hardest thing for academics when they think about entrepreneurship?
The fear of losing control. Academics lose their careers if they publish something that is incorrect. Trust is required if you are going to be an entrepreneur.
What role if any, did NYU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem play in your journey?
I started a lot of this before coming to NYU. I’ve been at NYU for 7 or so years now. I have not taken full advantage of all the resources yet. But just knowing that this entrepreneurial ecosystem exists is very helpful. I visit different entrepreneurial classes and lectures as well as bring people from my company to these mixers. I participated in the I-Corps course, which was extremely valuable. I can now say that this is my concrete experience and I have authority in this space.
I-Corps is an accelerator program created by the National Science Foundation to develop scientific and engineering discoveries into successful commercial ventures. Over the course of the seven-week program, it seeks to train academic researchers to become an entrepreneur and drive a worthy project to the market. Participating teams can receive a $50,000 grant to be used to discover a commercial application for their technology.
What are some of the lessons you learned along the way that could be helpful to student entrepreneurs?
As a student entrepreneur, you have to stay open. Don’t get too attached to any particular notion of what you are going to be doing and be able to pivot. I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now if I had clung to epilepsy. We’re now looking at nursing homes, sports concussions, etc.
What are the lessons learned you learned in your journey?
Stay open and be open to pivots. Don’t get attached to the day to day operations. You must like the process, more than the actual thing that you are working on. Love what you do.
In your perspective, what is the single most important trait for entrepreneurs?
The hardest thing for academic entrepreneurs is that you have to lose some control. The single most important trait for entrepreneurs is trust. The way we run our experimental labs, we can lose our careers when something is published and it’s incorrect. We need to check everything.
I am an academic. I like solving academic problems. I try to be transparent and authentic. I don’t think I would actually like to run the company. If I had to; I think I could run the company though. I have a kinder personality than is necessary at times. As an entrepreneur, you need to make some hard decisions.
What’s next for you?
I like what I do and I hope to keep doing it. I would like to figure out what we are doing in the lab and turn it into more practical diagnostics for human consumption. At the lab, I understand how the brain processes information. The challenge is to turn it into an actionable item instead of just a bunch of papers.