Nov. 15, 2012 University of Utah electrical engineering professor Florian Solzbacher is helping turn science fiction into reality through his research and related startup companies. Solzbacher is pushing the boundaries of electrical devices that can be implanted into the brain and used as an interface between neurons and computers. If you're thinking about the "Six Million Dollar Man," you're not entirely off base.
Solzbacher's research builds on Utah Electrode Array ("Utah Array") technologies, which were invented by another University of Utah professor, Richard Normann, and are recognized as the leading approach for selective communication with hundreds of neurons in the central and peripheral nervous systems. The Utah Array is a computer chip that is implanted in, and takes signals from the brain. It transmits them in a way a computer can understand -- in short, a neural interface. Solzbacher has improved how the chip works and pioneered its applications.
"We are making things work," says Solzbacher. "People have had the idea to invent better technologies like ours for years, but we are the first to make them work and get them into patients. There are over 10,000 labs worldwide that can make things with our technologies, and they, in turn, pull us in and involve us in theirs."
Solzbacher is commercializing his research through startup company Blackrock Microsystems and sister company Blackrock NeuroMed. Both firms employ a combined 50 people and are selling their neural interface technologies and related tools to researchers and companies around the globe. Their customers are using the technologies to find new approaches for treating nervous system disorders such as blindness, deafness, Parkinson's and epilepsy, while another set of clients is using them to control prosthetic limbs.
Marking the continued success of Solzbacher's research, his startup companies are moving into a new $11 million facility at the University of Utah's Research Park. It's being constructed in partnership with Woodbury Corporation and will help Solzbacher's companies continue innovating and fulfilling worldwide demand for the advanced neuroscience technology they produce.
"Utah is widely recognized across America and around the world as a hotbed of neuroscience research and technology," says Andrew Gotshalk, CEO of Blackrock NeuroMed. "This new building is a real and symbolic recognition of the growth that we expect as both companies continue to innovate and grow."
The 60,000-square-foot building features a clean room and state-of-the-art energy efficiency. Blackrock Microsystems and Blackrock Neuromed will occupy about half of the building; the other half is available for rent -- potentially to other startup companies spun-off from university research. The building is expected to be completed by January 2013 and may be expanded to 90,000 square feet in the future.
"When Blackrock outgrew its previous space we considered buying and renovating an existing facility, but quickly discovered that it would be better to start from scratch," says Solzbacher. "There is no other existing facility on the Wasatch Front that would have been better than this one. With the close proximity to the hospitals, the University of Utah and all of its labs, we were really fortunate to secure the space."
Founded in 2008 by Solzbacher, Blackrock Microsystems provides enabling tools for the neuroscience, neural engineering, neuralprosthetics and clinical community worldwide. Those tools include implant devices, software and tracking capabilities that comply with FDA and European standards. Blackrock Microsystems installs the components, runs the first experiment and then assists in maintaining them for use. The company also researches ways to help clients improve the performance of the components as data is generated.
Sister company Blackrock NeuroMed was launched in 2011 to commercialize high-end electroencephalogram (EEG) systems for hospitals and private practices. EEGs are commonly used in hospitals to diagnose brain disorders by analyzing the patient's brain signals.
"Our new technology has much higher resolution and many more channels than existing EEG technology," says Gotshalk. "It is similar to the difference between a regular TV and a high definition TV, and we believe this higher quality data will lead to better treatment of patients."
The University of Utah's Research Park was created in 1968, when 320 acres of land in the Fort Douglas area was declared a surplus and set aside with the intent to attract and promote the growth of industrial technology, to foster the economic growth and development of Utah by providing an environment conducive to the interaction of the university and industrial communities and to encourage the transfer of university research and technology to the private sector for the creation of jobs and state revenues.
The following people are part of the neural engineering team at the University of Utah and have contributed to the success of Blackrock Microsystems and Blackrock NeuroMed: Richard Normann, Greg Clark, Bradley Greger, Paul House, Patrick Tresco, as well as Dave Warren, Loren Rieth, Prashant Tathireddy and others as research faculty.
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