Thync Lets You Give Your Mind a Jolt

Can a Bluetooth-enabled device lead to inner peace?

Photograph by Carlos Chavarría for Bloomberg Businessweek
In a windowless conference room at Thync, a secretive startup in Los Gatos, Calif., I recently tried what may be Silicon Valley’s strangest new product in years. The company’s engineers carefully placed a prototype device with two electrodes on my head and asked if I wanted the “energy vibe” or the “calm vibe.” I chose the latter, and for the next 12 minutes, they applied specifically calibrated levels of electricity to target my cranial nerves. When the skin under the pads started to tighten, I lowered the intensity setting on an accompanying iPhone app. It all seemed crazy—until halfway through the session, when the familiar knot of stress in my stomach evaporated.

Thync announced on Oct. 8 that it’s raised $13 million from investors, including well-heeled Khosla Ventures, to mine the intersection of neuroscience and consumer electronics. Sometime next year, the company will begin selling a miniaturized, Bluetooth-enabled neurosignaling device, along with the seductive, controversial proposition that customers can program their state of mind. “This is an avenue for people to call up their best stuff on demand,” says Isy Goldwasser, Thync’s chief executive officer and co-founder. “It’s a way for us to overcome our basic limitation as people. It lets us call up our focus, our calm, and creativity when we need it.”

As with so many other things, Philip K. Dick predicted this. In 1968’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, characters use a device called a mood organ to select the state of mind or emotion they want. Science is apparently catching up with fiction: Neuroscientists have shown that small doses of electrical stimulation, targeting nerves that carry signals to the brain, can help patients recover from head injuries, alleviate depression, or, in children with learning disabilities, enhance memory. (The technique, known as transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, is far different from the infamous electroshock or electro-convulsive therapy, which jolts the entire brain indiscriminately at a much higher voltage to trigger a seizure.)

While most scientists are focused on the therapeutic effects of tDCS, Thync is developing it as an alternative to mood-altering drugs such as alcohol or caffeine. The company started in 2011, when Goldwasser, the former president of materials sciences company Symyx Technologies, heard about the work of Jamie Tyler, a professor at Arizona State University who was exploring the use of ultrasound to modulate brain patterns. The pair met and decided the time was right to try to commercialize the field.

At the time, Goldwasser was an entrepreneur in residence at Khosla. When he first pitched Thync to the firm, he held up a “neuralyzer”—the memory-erasing prop from the Men in Black films, which he’d bought on EBay—and joked, “Now everyone look at this and give me $2 million.” By Khosla’s standards, the pitch wasn’t that far-fetched. The firm has invested in startups that developed things such as plant-based egg substitutes, low-cost rocket boosters, and biofuels, so Thync fit nicely into its portfolio. “People want more and more control over their lives and bodies,” says Samir Kaul, a founding partner at Khosla. “If you can chill out with this device as opposed to having a cocktail, or focus without having another cup of coffee, you are going to do it.”

Thync pursued Tyler’s ultrasound techniques for the first year, until the founders learned about studies conducted at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, where researchers had tried to improve pilots’ cognitive abilities with electrical stimulation. Reasoning that the electrical method, with its rapidly improving science, offered a safer, quicker route to the market, Thync switched gears. Since then, the company has worked to shrink the electrodes and develop its algorithms to produce a reliable, comfortable experience.

For the past 18 months, Thync has tested its “vibes” on more than 2,000 people in clinical trials at its Boston office and the City College of New York. Some subjects didn’t respond to the treatment at all—it doesn’t work for everybody—but the company reached a milestone when two out of three respondents started to regularly say the sensations were more powerful than the placebo effect. “Most people rate it as a moderate to strong response,” Goldwasser says of the energy vibe, “or at least as good as a few cups of coffee.”

Thync now has about two dozen employees and plans to start selling its device in the first half of 2015. One challenge will be teaching people to place the electrodes on the right spots. Tyler says they’ll be molded to fit snugly on foreheads, and the company may film instructional videos. Thync wouldn’t share its pricing plans, promising only that the device will be affordable for the masses. Kaul at Khosla says he hopes Thync can develop dozens of additional “vibes,” which the company says it might sell like a software company sells apps.

First, Thync has to address some obvious questions. Is long-term use safe? How about use by kids? Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at Oxford, says, “This might well be the technology of the future, but at the moment we are looking at the very early phases of research. It’s the Wild West of brain stimulation.”

Barbara Sahakian, president of the International Neuroethics Society and a psychiatry professor at Cambridge, wonders what such brain tinkering portends. “As individuals, we have to develop resilience in the face of stress and top-down cognitive control over our emotions,” she says. “Will we now be satisfied to use quick fixes, including technology and cognitive-enhancing, or ‘smart,’ drugs, to improve mood and cognition?”

Goldwasser acknowledges these worries and says the company is talking to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure compliance with agency guidelines. He notes that neuroelectrical stimulation has been tested for decades without apparent harm. And he draws the obvious comparison to the $400 billion market for stimulants such as coffee and energy drinks, not to mention other mood-altering substances. With Thync, he says, “the energy you’re getting is your energy, the calm you’re feeling is your calm, the self-control you feel is your self-control. We aren’t changing you at all. It’s your body and mind responding to a signal.”