Hearing loss, tinnitus and other hearing issues are on the rise. With greater exposure to sound in daily routines, our ears are constantly stressed. The problem is that our ears cannot regenerate; once hearing is lost, it cannot be restored, for now at least.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Guillard, a young neuroscientist and engineering student from French University, École Polytechnique. Together with two co-founders, Robin has launched the start-up Zeta Technologies with the aim of alleviating the suffering of tinnitus patients. Tinnitus, the condition of hearing phantom sound ranges from mildly irritating, to seriously debilitating and affects 30% of the global population at some point in their lives. Thanks to breakthrough neuroscience research, using a non-invasive cap which measures brain activity, Robin’s team are on the road to curing the condition completely.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The turning point that led myself and my co-founders to this strange career path happened when we all opted to take part in École Polytechnique’s Entrepreneurship program, Learn2Launch, which included an exchange trip to the University of California, Berkeley. During my time there, as I was already heavily involved with Neuroscience and more specifically in the making of electroencephalography sensors (EEG, one of the main brain imaging techniques), I decided to additionally follow a voluntary course on “Biosensor signal analysis”. The course was led by Professor John Chuang, who happened to be the director of the BioSense research lab, focused on the study of in-ear EEG sensors. I found these sensors fascinating; the possibilities they pose are the stuff of science fiction; imagine if your common earphones were also able to pick up brain signals, to monitor your health or control your smartphone by thought. Because of my past knowledge and experience in EEG sensor making for the French startup Rhythm, making a sleep enhancer headset, I was able to work together with one of my Zeta Technologies co-founders to assist Professor John Chuang with his research in Berkeley. Our involvement led us to progressively specialize in the field at the frontier between neuroscience and audition. This path would lead us to tinnitus, and the quest to cure it, several months later. Today we are effectively treating the condition with our product; a non-invasive cap which measures brain activity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I think the most intense moment we had on our research journey was the first time a patient told us we had reduced their suffering. It happened in May 2017, when we were still using the second generation prototype of our non-invasive cap and accompanying software. One of our patients called us to announce that he had experienced three hours of real silence after four years of constant noise. The patient was really moved, and so were we. At that stage the system was a really basic version of what it is now, the cap itself only had one sensor! When we started the clinical trial with the third generation of prototype (which became the current product), our second patient announced to us that she had a complete disappearance of her tinnitus after the third session, and it has not returned since. I remember we celebrated the event at the office the night after!
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
To understand what we are doing, you need two elements of context: first, in 2005, German researchers identified that chronic tinnitus (patients who have suffered tinnitus for at least six months) had different brain activities (on the alpha and delta band) in the specialized auditory brain regions compared to healthy subjects. This led them to predict that returning these brain activities to normal would help alleviate tinnitus symptoms. The second piece of information you need to know is that with the appropriate apparatus and with rigorous scientific practice, you can enable people to train their brain to durably modify potentially any specific brain activity through a method called neurofeedback. Following this finding in 2005, several clinical trials have been launched in 2007, 2011 and 2016 to see whether reeducating auditory brain activities through neurofeedback would alleviate tinnitus. The results showed a 30% alleviation of tinnitus symptoms in the patients which were observed. My team decided to launch our startup with goal to make a product that would enable clinicians and audiologists to treat people suffering tinnitus with this method. Our current treatment plan consists of 10 sessions of 1 hour each, where the patient meets with an audiologist, is equipped with an EEG headset that non-invasively estimates the brain activity of the auditory cortex and displays it in real time on a computer. This way the patient is able to interact with this specific brain activity, and we create an interface that guides him or her to first learn to control this brain activity and then to train it to behave as a healthy brain does.
How do you think this might change the world?
Ultimately, hearing loss, tinnitus and other hearing issues are on the rise. With greater exposure to sound in daily routines, our ears are constantly stressed. The problem is that our ears cannot regenerate; once hearing is lost, it cannot be restored, for now at least. Yet when the ear sensory functions fail, the brain works hard to compensate. The scientific community thinks that when the brain tries to compensate in this way, but does so incorrectly, issues such as tinnitus can arise. With our work, my team hope to mend the maladaptive compensation mechanism and spare millions of people in the future the horrible experience of tinnitus.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I like Black Mirror and I find this question funny. Sadly, you can find a dystopic outcome to every well-intended scientific breakthrough. In our case, we want to help people suffering from tinnitus by developing a greater understanding of it and trying to cure it. But understanding the condition in general more could lead us to understand how we can generate it, and induce it in people. If some evil people gained access to this information, they could use it as an exceptional psychological torturing tool…
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Well, the major tipping point that lead to our breakthrough was the discovery of the brain activities related to tinnitus by Professor Nathan Weisz’s team. It was enabled by the rise and popularization of a new imagery technique called MEG (magnetoencephalography), a ‘cousin’ of EEG but more powerful. Nathan was the pioneer who used this instrument to draw comparisons between tinnitus sufferers and healthy patients. From here the idea of renormalizing brain activity to cure tinnitus arose.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Our solution is designed to improve itself. Our start-up will benefit from the typical big data effect: the more people to be treated with our devices, the more data we will collect and the more we will be able to accurately target the brain activities linked with tinnitus and improve the efficiency of the treatment. Above all, tinnitus can manifest in many ways. The kind of sound heard, and the severity of noise can differ greatly on a case-by case basis. We know that they are different subgroups of patients that we need to first identify in order to then personalize the treatment for each of them for a greater efficiency.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
Our project is new and a lot of effort is yet needed to publicize our idea. In fact, until now we have mainly focused on the science of improving our treatment plan. Our energy has been devoted to getting in contact with all the top notch scientists working in the field, and connecting with ENTs (Ear, Nose and Throat specialists) and audiologists across all France.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Actually, we received a lot of help from a lot of people along the way and it’s hard to pick only one person. If I should choose, I would give a special thanks to Dr. Alain Londero, ENT at Hospital Georges Pompidou, who is a world renowned tinnitus expert. He has been coaching us on this project from the very beginning, connecting us in the field, and giving us hints on where to look through the past research.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope this is clear! Silence is a bliss we only become aware of when we are constantly deprived of it. Giving it back to people is definitely bringing goodness to the world!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Lawyers are businessmen and like to have recurring clients. Don’t let yourself be dependent on them. This can be a tough lesson to learn when the lawyers that write your venture status make it so administratively complex that you need them each time you want to do anything for your firm… It costs a lot!
- Never look at intermediary results in a clinical trial. In our case, the first two patients in our clinical trial had no results but it was just bad luck! Yet we had a rough time when we first became aware of this fact: we began to question ourselves and whether all we’d done was for nothing? Not an enjoyable experience. So don’t be impatient, it’s much better wait until the clinical trial is finished.
- As soon as you receive money, use a lever effect: maybe this won’t be applicable elsewhere, but in France, institutions help a lot of young startup projects by providing financial support when a project becomes officially and legally a startup, this way, from 15 000 euros you can make 45,000 euros through a state subvention mechanism called BPI Frenchtech Emergence. This is also true for financing clinical trials. We should have started to use these mechanisms right from the start if only we were aware of it.
- Take time to learn about television journalists: we had a really bad experience when we were asked to appear on TV in a television report: I devoted 10 hours of work to setting up everything for the shooting to happen, and then we only appeared for 15 seconds or so, our name was not even mentioned.
- I can’t find a fifth example, but I think that inevitably new mistakes will happen in the future to complete this list!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Last century was about the conquest of space, I believe the XXIst century will be about understanding the brain. What is conscience? Intelligence? Both neuroscience and artificial intelligence are increasingly being widely used to investigate these questions. Yet more people seem to be interested in the artificial side of things, rather than the natural, which is perhaps a shame. I find our field thrilling, why not join us? Above all, the field of audition and neuroscience needs more researchers as there so much yet to be discovered. Help us conquer the great unknown inside our heads!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My computer home screen picture is a photo with the quote; “Not magic. Science.” For me, these words are really powerful. They mean you need to understand what you are doing before you expect it to work. This is why we have taken time before launching our product; we want to be sure that we know why it works when it works and there is work still to be done. I think it’s a good life lesson; genuine results come from hard work and rigorous science.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
If I were in front of them, I would tune a 4000 Hz pure tone to maximum volume on my smartphone and get close to them with it. I would say “Imagine you have this in your ears, 24/7, with no “off” switch, how would you feel?” Then I would explain that this is what tinnitus feels like, and that there are currently no solutions to cure this problem, but that we finally have a lead. I’d explain our work, the science it’s based on, how much the scientific community support our initiative, the good results we have had in our clinical trials (which have just ended, results are not yet official), and our commercial deployment so far with our audiologists early adopters. Then I would ask them if they are free for a tea for further discussion.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Coming from an engineering and science background, we haven’t conquered the social media landscape, but this is about to change as we grow bigger. For now, you can find us on facebook https://www.facebook.com/zetascience/ and on our website www.zetatech.fr
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
Thank you for having me, it was a pleasure.