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

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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 … Next Page »

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