Not many neuroscientists can say their research partners included acclaimed music producer Brian Eno in jam sessions with drummers like Will Champion from Coldplay.
And that’s just a taste of the professional repertoire put together by Baylor College of Medicine’s David Eagleman. The Houston-based educator is also a best-selling author and entrepreneur. (One of his companies, BrainCheck, a cognitive screening app designed to better detect concussions, was part of the first startup accelerator at Texas Medical Center’s TMCx.) Tonight, Eagleman adds another medium to the list: television.
His broadcast television debut comes from “The Brain With David Eagleman,” an hour-long television show that begins a six-week run on PBS this Wednesday.
“I care a lot about public dissemination of science,” he says. “All of us who get into neuroscience … it’s easy to get sucked into some rabbit hole of your own preoccupation, back and forth papers in academic literature that nobody on the planet reads. What gets lost is that original beauty that drew you into the field.”
Here is an edited transcript of our recent conversation.
Xconomy: What brought you to found BrainCheck? Why did you want to add executive to your list of titles?
David Eagleman: For many years, two decades now, part of what I’ve been doing is psychophysics—measuring how people respond to things on a computer screen in terms of what they think they see, how quickly they react to it, and what kinds of errors they make. When people get concussed, there are very specific things that change in terms of perception and cognition. It can be subtle but we have the tools to tease these measurements out. By having them play these simplified video games, we take the stuff we do in lab settings and make it available to athletes, for example, in five minutes. I harvest 11 brain functions, including memory and reaction time. Once everyone is baselined, if they hit their head, I can immediately compare their score to their baseline.
It’s an interesting path for me, how to take an idea from the lab out of it. I was lucky enough to get a CEO in Yael (Katz) who’s absolutely terrific. Under her stewardship, we’ve combined state of the arts science with good commercialization. I’m so thrilled to be doing this; it’s really badly needed. (Efforts by the Texas Medical Center, including TMCx.) I moved here from San Diego, which has the Salk Institute, one of leaders in the nation as far as biotech commercialization. I often thought, why isn’t TMC leading that? I’m really jazzed about the new opportunities now.
X: How is being an entrepreneur different from academia?
D.E.: People coming from this work don’t have a natural sense of what enterprise software really takes. We can write pretty software, but will somebody be able to modify the software and use it later? It’s a real step up in the level of professionalism that’s required.
Another lesson is the amount of legalese that one has to learn. It’s a lot. A whole history of rare events happening in different cases and it collectively adds up to a huge number of clauses and paragraphs and exceptions and paperwork. At first, I thought I’m clever; I can figure this stuff out. Now I just pay for legal help.
It’s a hard lesson for scientists to take on; we’re used to being able to steer the ship ourselves and understand it all. Without having a ton of experience in business, walking into this, you can’t simulate all the scenarios that can go wrong. People who have been in the business know this. What if an investor does this; what if partners steal that? It’s just a meter of experience.
Many academics, perhaps most, would not make good CEOs. For BrainCheck, I hired Yael and it’s so great to watch her and learn from her. It’s also the case that a lot of people kind of want to take on scientists, and their assumption is this person is an academic so that means they can’t tie their own shoes. That they don’t have any street smarts at all. There are some situations where academics are at risk of getting ripped off. The solution is opportunities for scientists to study entrepreneurship and learn the basics.
X: What’s the biggest hurdle in making the company successful?
D.E.: Good universities that have really good tech transfer formulas in place that are favorable to inventors, and everyone walks away happy. Bad investors nickel and dime inventors; they want above-market rates. That’s an easy way to fail.
X: Reading the New Yorker article on you from a few years ago, and it talked about how you like to have several projects going at once. It occurred to me that that’s the opposite of what we are hearing about how detrimental our over-distracted habits are for us. Are you an exception to this?
D.E.: It’s not not awful for me. It’s a constant struggle to just keep my head above water. The one advantage that comes from having lots of projects is that I constantly discover synergies. One project helps the other project in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen.
As an example, as I’ve been doing media for the TV series, people call in with questions, say, on live radio. I’m able to talk about BrainCheck. I can reach a wide audience and tell them all about what we’re doing with that.
As for multitasking and feeling stretched thin, I have not perfected anything wise there.
X: You collaborated with British composer Max Richter on “Lullaby for a Frenetic World?” (Part of Richter’s eight-hour opus called “Sleep.”) How did that come about?
D.E.: I wrote a book of fiction called “Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives” and it got turned into two different operas: one at the Sidney Opera House by Brian Eno, and the other at the Royal Opera House by Richter. I went to London for the premier. He wanted to write a piece of music that would be played for eight hours as people slept. Starting a year ago, we set up a consultation, set up Skype meetings and talked about sleeping and dreaming. He did 100 percent of the work.
X: The show, “The Brain.” How did this come about? You would be reaching an audience far wider than a typical neuroscientist. What is the message you hope to convey?
D.E.: I’ve been working on this for two years now. I grew up watching (Carl) Sagan’s “Cosmos” and using science as a way to know the world around us. What’s cool about it, it’s the only series of its kind that has Houston in 50 percent of the scenes. You’ll recognize lots and lots of the places in it.
The series centers around big questions: Who am I? What is reality? Who’s in control? Do I need you? For the viewer, I hope it’s a powerful inroad into understanding one’s self.