“RoboRoach” Startup Hopes Partners, TED Talk Help Usher In Profits

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Backyard Brains, an Ann Arbor, MI-based startup founded by two neuroscientists from the University of Michigan, is making a name for itself by selling a plethora of fun, do-it-yourself science projects for budding makers and researchers—including what it calls the world’s first commercially available cyborg.

If you’re picturing Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator,” think again: The cyborgs from Backyard Brains have six legs, can supposedly survive nuclear holocausts, and are usually an unwelcome sight when spotted indoors. But for $99, you, too, can have your very own remote-controlled Robo Roach. (More on how Backyard Brains is turning cockroaches into cyborgs in a minute.)

Yet, intriguing technology only goes so far in business; try telling a room full of venture capitalists why they should back a company creating an army of tiny, six-legged cyborgs. So Backyard Brains has had to experiment with business models as well as insects. Now, after subsisting mostly on grants and modest sales revenues for the past five years, the startup has moved into a new phase where it is forming partnerships with education and retail organizations—and capturing more of the world’s attention with its democratizing, DIY approach to teaching people the basic principles of neuroscience.

The company’s goal is to bring its products to a much wider audience and inspire young scientific minds to study neuroscience, in part to help combat brain disorders that affect huge numbers of people. But before that happens, more of the world at large needs to discover the home experiments Backyard Brains is developing. To that end, founder Greg Gage gave a TED talk in March that has since gone viral, racking up more than 1.6 million views so far and spreading Backyard Brains’ “neuroscience for everyone” gospel.

“Our sales have gone through the roof since the TED talk was posted online,” Gage said, clearly excited by the potential opportunities to come.

Backyard Brains was started by Gage and Tim Marzullo in 2009. Gage loved doing outreach and teaching local school kids about how neuroscience works. He and Marzullo created a tiny “spiker box,” a device that acts as a bioamplifier to hear and see real-time spikes in neurons belonging to insects and invertebrates, as a grad school project, and it became the company’s flagship product.

The pair designed the spiker box with 12 accompanying neuroscience lessons that kids 5th grade and older could tackle, complete with lesson plans that featured cartoon characters. In 2013, Backyard Brains launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $12,000 to fund the development of the Robo Roach kit—essentially a tiny backpack for cockroaches permitting brief, wireless control of the lateral movement of a cockroach by microstimulation of the antenna nerves. You tickle a nerve and the roach is compelled to go left or right; experimenters can also record and analyze their data on a mobile app.

As part of the Robo Roach experiments—which first involve plunging a cockroach into ice water to shut off its nervous system and dull pain before performing minor surgery on the roach’s antennae—kids learn about the anatomy and nervous system of a cockroach, as well as proper surgical and husbandry techniques for experiments on insects. Gage took the Robo Roach around to local classrooms to show kids how neuron activity in the brain could be influenced and recorded, and the response was strong. The journal Nature caught a demo of a Backyard Brains experiment at a conference and ran an article about it, and people soon began asking where they could buy the Robo Roach spiker box kit.

Gage described the kits as “$34,000 in recording equipment for $99,” able to monitor the neuron activity of insects. But the applications are much broader. Twenty percent of the world’s population has a neurological disorder such as depression, schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease, Gage said, and the Robo Roach is the perfect way to introduce kids to basic neurological processes that may be key to understanding those diseases.

“These are very expensive, incurable diseases, and we have tools to get kids interested,” Gage said. “We want to inspire a generation of citizen-scientists. If we can lower the barrier to entry so the only limit is creativity, that might help with finding treatments for neurological disorders.”

And while this roach surgery thing may sound a bit gruesome, Gage insists Backyard Brains’ experiments don’t cause the insects any significant, lasting harm. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) made a stink in 2013 and announced it was boycotting the company, going as far as filing a complaint with Michigan’s attorney general. Eventually, Apple and Google both pulled the Robo Roach app from their respective app stores, and it took letters of support from the head of the National Institute of Mental Health, a Harvard bioethicist, and even President Obama—who was familiar with Backyard Brains after Gage won a Champions of Change award for his outreach work involving neuroscience education—before the app was reinstated.

Roach Retirement

The Backyard Brains office in downtown Ann Arbor is the definition of cramped: three small rooms stacked to the ceiling with people, insects, boxes, and equipment. This is where a team of 15 or so staffers, who Gage says have “more ideas than time,” design and test the company’s kits before they’re made available to the public.

On the day I visited, two interns were huddled in the back wrapping up a Robo Roach surgery. I watched while they stimulated the cockroach’s antennae and forced it to change direction as it crawled across the table. Other employees were manning phones and computers. The atmosphere seemed to be one of jovial, barely contained chaos—it reminded me of the campaign office I spent hundreds of hours working out of, one grueling but satisfying summer a decade ago.

One closet at the Backyard Brains HQ contains Shady Acres, small plastic “houses” where cockroaches used in experiments live out their post-laboratory lives. Late last year, Backyard Brains started a buy-back program for roaches that have been used in its customers’ experiments, perhaps in part to appease PETA’s concerns. Shady Acres is where the roaches live once they’ve been shipped back to Ann Arbor.

“I don’t want the Robo Roach to be a toy,” Gage said. “You have to learn how to care for the animal instead of treating it like a toy—that’s why we don’t sell them with the surgery already done.”

Though Backyard Brains is best known for its Robo Roaches, it also offers kits to test scorpions and flies, and its products include dozens of other experiments. Gage said another kit is coming this summer that will allow users to test moths to see if there’s a difference between the neurological responses of males and females.

“Everything we do is basic electrophysiology,” Gage said. “The apps collect the data and analyze it. The basic tools are there to answer deep questions about how neurons function. We don’t think we’ll solve Alzheimer’s disease, but a lot of this is relatable.”

According to Gage, Backyard Brains is also delving into next-generation optogenetics, which is the process of using optical and genetic methods to control and monitor individual neurons in living tissue. Gage went on to describe optogenetics as the “holy grail” for understanding the brain and, possibly, brain diseases.

“It allows us to select only one cell and cause it to fire using light,” he said. “We can finely tune just the right cells. We have a new project building optogenetics kits with fruit flies. You can get them to think they’re tasting something sweet.”

Bucks for Brains

Backyard Brains’ first grant was from the University of Michigan’s Dare to Dream program; the company received a phase 1 SBIR grant in 2011, and a phase 2 SBIR grant in 2013. The company has also received grants from the Kauffman Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Chilean government. (For the past year, Marzullo has been doing the bulk of his research in South America.) Backyard Brains is currently working with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Ann Arbor SPARK to create a sales plan and figure out who its potential new customers are.

After the company won U-M’s annual student-led startup competition in 2009, the team headed out to California to make the rounds and pitch their ideas to VCs. According to Gage, the investors had trouble grasping the value proposition of Backyard Brains. “They laughed us out of the room,” he said.

But in recent weeks, since the TED talk went viral and late-night television bookers began calling to ask Gage to demonstrate the company’s experiments, Backyard Brains is back on the radar of investors. Gage said that he’s now gotten e-mails from four different VCs expressing serious interest.

Meanwhile, on the sales front, some recent partnerships may hold the key to increasing the company’s distribution. First, Backyard Brains has formed a collaboration with the littleBits hardware-kit store in New York City. The store, founded by MIT Media Lab alum and open-source hardware proponent Ayah Bdeir, is popular with the maker crowd. It sells a library of modular electronics with magnetic connectors, allowing customers to build, play with, and prototype devices or objects without any prior electronics knowledge.

Backyard Brains has shrunk its spiker box down to a “bit” that detects and records the electrical activity of human muscles through electrodes affixed to the skin (no surgery required). The company submitted the device to the littleBits bitLab, which is sort of like an app store for hardware modules, where the littleBits community votes online to determine which components will be offered for sale.

Gage said its EMG Spiker Box has been approved by voters and will soon be available to customers. The company has worked out a deal—littleBits produces the modules and Backyard Brains gets 10 percent of the retail price.

Paul Rothman, director of research and development for littleBits, said Gage and Bdeir first met as speakers at a TED conference in 2012. “They met and talked about collaborating within the littleBits system,” Rothman explained. “The interesting thing about working with Greg is it’s a sort of technology most people wouldn’t have interacted with. It’s not super common to have it in the home, so to be able to introduce people to this technology is exciting.”

Rothman said the Backyard Brains collaboration marks the first time littleBits has offered a module with a wearable tech or biofeedback element. “It’s a very interesting new step for us,” he added. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to do other things in that realm, as well.”

Working with Backyard Brains is appealing, Rothman said, because despite Gage’s intense science background, he makes learning about neuroscience fun. (In person, he gives off a definite “cool dad” vibe.) “Greg has a way of communicating the science that is really great,” Rothman said. “We see this as taking challenging concepts and making them digestible so people will get a better understanding.”

For his part, Gage said the partnership with littleBits is an important step toward commercialization for a company and co-founders that are perhaps more comfortable in the lab. Yet Backyard Brains needs to do more to keep building its business.

If you go to the “Our Finances” tab on the Backyard Brains homepage, you see a graph that charts the company’s sales over the past five years. During the most profitable month in the company’s history, which was November 2013, it raised just under $60,000 in revenue. Last month, total revenue was just over $38,000; so far this month, the company had already generated $26,725 by the end of the first week. Though people are usually captivated by Backyard Brains’ products and experiments once they see them—as evidenced by the virality of Gage’s TED talk—a lot more of them need to know about the company in the first place before it can take off.

As part of a strategy to get more exposure, Backyard Brains has dozens of new research projects and potential kits underway, a flurry of grant applications to submit, and ongoing discussions about new collaborations, Gage said. One of these is a partnership with a Harvard University online course, where students taking classes with a lab component will get kits designed by Backyard Brains for use in conducting experiments at home.

“We did a pilot with Harvard last year, and the results were through the roof,” Gage said. “Students were much more confident as a result of having our kits, and their grades were twice as high.”

Backyard Brains is also involved in educational projects associated with the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Obama administration’s BRAIN initiative, and the National Institutes of Health. Each idea—showing K-12 teachers how to build their own basic lab equipment, recording the neurons of Venus Flytraps and algae, tricking the nervous system of fruit flies with LED lights—seems more fantastic than the next. But a big question is whether such projects will help lead to more business and customers.

“The success we’ve had this month is a blip right now, but we’re blowing up online,” Gage said, admitting that’s he’s a little embarrassed about the new attention because he feels his March TED talk wasn’t his best effort. (In fact, he was only asked to present the night before the event after the previously scheduled speaker had trouble getting a travel visa.) There’s a new sales team in place at Backyard Brains working hard to parlay the TED talk’s popularity into revenue, he said.

Indeed, in addition to the lofty goal of making neuroscience more accessible to the masses, Gage has a more pragmatic objective for the near future: “I’m hoping this year is our breakout year,” he said. “I hope this is the year we become profitable.”