Earbuds: The Next Brain-Computer Interface?

A VentureLabs Interview with Kristina Pearkes, CTO and Cofounder at Orbityl

Imagine if your brain was able to open an app on your phone?  Or you could turn up the volume on your iPhone with a thought? That’s the realm that Kristina Pearkes, the Chief Technology Officer at Orbityl, and her co-founder Sean Kaiser, are working in.

Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology is still a number of years away from being a commercially available entity, but the dynamic team at Orbityl sees potential in some of the early applications. Check out our latest interview with Kristina Pearkes.

The long-term potential of humans being able to control devices with their brain is enormous.

Kristina Pearkes, the Chief Technology Officer at Orbityl

VentureLabs (VL): Tell us about the idea behind Orbityl.

Kristina: We’re designing the next generation of neurotechnology, specifically brain-computer interfaces.  We develop sensors that integrate with earbud headphones that monitor electrical brain activity, and we map patterns in that signal to specific thoughts that a user is having.

It’s still early days for BCI technology, but we’ve seen promising results.  When my co-founder puts the headset on, our proprietary sensors enable him to communicate with a device using simple thought-commands. Of course, there’s major calibration work to be done for each individual, so we’re pretty deep in research right now.

We are also currently piloting our sensors with one of the world’s largest headphone manufacturers, with the goal of integrating our sensors into their commercial products.

VL: What did you do before starting Orbityl?

Kristina: I completed my engineering degree at McGill while also exploring entrepreneurship. My Orbityl cofounder, Sean Kaiser, and I created a website for food-sharing for the university community. 

We were part of the Next 36 program in Toronto, Ontario, and won the Outstanding Venture Award out of that cohort; we then went to the Highway1 accelerator in San Francisco, California, USA, where we were one of four companies selected to the cohort. We also participated in the machine learning stream of the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto, Ontario.

VL: What makes your company unique?

Kristina: No one else is doing in-ear electroencephalograms (EEGs) for brain-computer interfaces. EEG’s monitor electrical impulses in the brain, traditionally through many small electrodes attached to a person’s head.

We know there are potential applications where individuals will not want to wear the very visible and obtrusive EEG cranial caps for monitoring brain activity and will prefer a much more discreet earbud technology. There are trade-offs between a traditional scalp system and our in-ear system, but for most applications, we can achieve similar results.

A quick analogy for you… if you’re out walking and you notice a car coming directly toward you, you have enough information to make a decision – move or don’t move out of the way.  You don’t need to know the make, model, year, driver’s name, speed or colour of that car – to make that decision. We know there are BCI applications out there where our technology, via the earbud, will produce optimal results.

VL: How did you decide what market to target?

Kristina: Of course, the long-term potential of humans being able to control devices with their brain is enormous, but it’s critical in the shorter term to find intermediary applications.

We started with monitoring and scoring sleep, but we learned pretty quickly that it was a very busy market without a clear path to sales for us. 

We are currently piloting our sensors with a headphone company to prove that our technology can have useful applications today, not just a future BCI.  Unfortunately, I am not able to say specifically what applications we are working on.

VL: What are the challenges or threats right now in your industry?

Kristina: There’s a lot of people with big money working on BCIs, for example, Elon Musk’s Neuralink (who are apparently developing implantable brain-machine interfaces) but because the space is still in its infancy, there’s room for a number of players to explore different methodologies. At Orbityl, we’re tackling a non-invasive approach to EEG.

Optimistically, I still think the industry is at least 2 or 3 years away from seeing BCI technology become “more mainstream.” So, our challenge is to find intermediary markets that can still benefit from early iterations of BCIs.

VL: What impact do you want to have in the world or change you want to see or make happen?

Kristina: Our goal is to provide easy access to powerful neurotechnology solutions.  Imagine this technology being used to help those who can’t speak or may have limited use of their motor functions.  We provide a quick, discreet, and cheap way to utilize brain-computer interface technology. 

In the future, we will also be able to use our devices to improve safety in the workplace or when driving by accurately measuring fatigue levels, by helping people optimize their day and giving them a way to track their mental activity as they do their physical fitness today, and by helping them learn by adjusting content based on their levels of engagement or frustration. 

There are so many ways for brain data to provide extra inputs into our world, it’s almost hard to fathom. I do believe we are going to get to the stage where we can use machine learning to decode human thinking.

VL: Can you comment on being a female entrepreneur in 2019?

Kristina: I don’t think it’s intentional, but I think people doubt me a bit more, that it’s almost like I have to prove myself just that bit more because I’m female. I know have a quieter style than many, but that means nothing other than I’m quiet. We need to stop assuming there is one universal leadership or entrepreneurship style that will succeed.

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Fast Five with Kristina

  1. What podcasts and books do you listen to? I really enjoy the Paul Graham essays; he’s one of the founders of Y Combinator.
  2. What’s your favourite thing to do in your free time? I’m a fan of all things DIY. I watch a lot of DIY on YouTube…I made a bedside table this past weekend.
  3. What’s your favourite food? Mac N Cheese. But sometimes it’s also my least favourite…It depends on how much I’ve had in one week.
  4. If you could spend an hour with one person not currently in your life, who would it be? Elon Musk
  5. What’s your superpower? I’m not sure if this is a superpower, but I’m a very curious person. I love learning out how things work.

VL: What is the biggest challenge for you as an entrepreneur?

Kristina: We need to raise money, so that’s a big focus right now. We were very nomadic in the beginning, moving locations as we won competitions. We learned immensely from each opportunity but moving so much also hampered our growth.

And of course, knowing what matters personally also has to count. We enjoyed our experience in San Francisco but ultimately came back to Canada, because the lifestyle is better for us here.

VL: If you had a “magic wand,” what would make it easier for you to succeed in your business?

Kristina: VC funding and talent. We’re ready to grow our team; we can’t wait to add team members.

VL: What keeps you going in the difficult times?

Kristina: The technology; it’s super interesting, and the potential is enormous. BCIs are in their infancy, but it’s also super exciting to be ahead of the storm. 

VL: What do you look for in your team members as you grow?

Kristina: Adaptability, flexibility, and hustle.

VL: With the knowledge you have today, what advice would you give your younger self at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey?

Kristina: Two main things.

  1. Just go for it; starting a business is hard and you’ve got to work through it.
  2. Trust ourselves more. As an entrepreneur, you are always getting advice, but it’s important to see these as data points and not to get swayed too easily. In the end, you know your business best.

VL: If we were sitting here one year from today what would you and your team be celebrating together?

Kristina: We will have secured funding, closed an integration contract, and had our application roll out to a broader audience.

VL: Do you have a mantra you live by?

Kristina: One step at a time.

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