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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.