MUSE is a comfortable, four sensor brain-sensing headband that measures your brainwaves and allows you to interact with apps and games on your smartphone, tablet, or PC. MUSE launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in October 2012 and nearly doubled their $150,000 goal, raising $287,472. We sat down with InteraXon co-Founder and CEO Ariel Garten to find out how it all started and to learn about what the company is focused on post-crowdfunding.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to start working on InteraXon?
My background includes neuroscience, design, and business. I started working with EEG technology about a decade ago. Throughout my life, I’ve always been back and forth between science and art. In high school, I had both a clothing line and a job in a research lab. I graduated from a university where I studied neuroscience; and immediately opened a clothing store in downtown Toronto, taking part in fashion week every season. The clothing I made always referenced science and technology — it was intellectual fashion. Moving forward, I knew I wanted to work in neuroscience and business in some way. I had worked at the research lab a decade prior with early EEG technology, and was blown away by the fact that we were essentially controlling the world with our minds. I thought, “the world needs to know about this”. I brought on Chris and Trevor as my co-founders, and in 2007 formed InteraXon.
Did you find that there was much of a difference between running your retail store and running InteraXon?
There is a huge difference. In the retail store, I was a sole proprietor so it was me and my retail store. I managed a crew of talented individuals who created and manufactured the garments I designed, but it was me running my own business, me talking to my customers as they walked in the door. In the business I am running now, I am immersed in research and design, I travel internationally meeting some of greatest minds in technology, and there’s a lot of boardroom time collaborating with the teams. There is a very different vocabulary, a very different set of activities, and it is on a much larger scale. What is similar is the dedication it takes to bring product ideas to fruition, and in both businesses it is ultimately about delivering a product that people love. In bringing Muse to market, I’m able to further my desire to merge neuroscience with beautiful design that will enable people to learn more about themselves, and to reduce stress and increase their happiness.
What was the first moment that you knew the technology was possible and that you could bring it to market?
In December 2007, I brought Chris and Trevor together with James Fung and Steve Mann. James was working on a project at the time. James is a PhD who had worked a lot with EEG technology, and his apartment happened to be right next door to mine. It was then that he gave us our first demo. It was the first time Trevor had ever seen anything like it. Trevor always talks about this seminal moment when he focused on this line on a screen. He changed the way he was staring at it and the line moved. He shifted his focus again and the line moved back. This one tiny little line, in this little apartment on a flickering screen going up and down was utterly astounding.
You used to do a lot of installations to demonstrate the technology, including one for the 2010 Olympics. How did that come to be?
We spent a year sitting in Trevor’s apartment coming up with plans as to how we were going to do this as a business. We thought we were going to do events at clubs, because he was a professional event planner. We sat around thinking, “What’s the biggest thing we could possibly do?” — we came up with the Olympics. So I put in a proposal and didn’t hear anything back. A few months later, we wrote an article in the Toronto Star that caught the attention of the Ministry of Research and Innovation. They did an article on our levitating chair. They wanted us to do a future showcase at the Premier’s Innovations Awards in May, which is a really big deal. I gave them my proposal for the Olympics and said, “Hey, you’re in the Government, can you do something with this?” The proposal was to have people changing lights on the Olympic rings with their minds. Two weeks later I got an email from the Ontario Government saying “Yes – can we get them in the Ontario colors?”
The project didn’t actually get officially funded until October 2009. The Olympics were February 2010. So we had four months to accomplish something nobody had ever done. We were taking this unproven version of EEG technology, applying it in a huge installation where Vancouver participants used the power of their minds to control the lights on the CN Tower, the Parliament Buildings, and Niagara Falls – from across the country, using a live feed.
I remember standing on top of the tallest hotel at the edge of Niagara Falls trying to find the camera angle that the fiber feed was going to come into. It was in the dark, because we had to make sure it worked at night too. We had spray on us, it was freezing, and it was awful. I remember climbing under a bunker under the Parliament Buildings to tap into their lighting system — literally in a bunker in Parliament Hill. We had to do all of this and the physical build with a team that had never worked together before with basically non-existent funding, for the most televised world-wide event.
That started this amazing and whirlwind pathway of us going from three people — which we were at the time — to the 25-person team we are now.
“We knew we were creating the future and we wanted to give people the opportunity to join us in the process.”
Were you ever tempted to just remain a consultancy and continue just doing installations rather than launch your own consumer product?
The Olympics was February 2010. That was massively successful. We spent 2010 and 2011 just doing projects for clients like Deutsche Telecom, Wrigley’s, BBDO, all the while knowing that we actually wanted to put out a consumer product. That was really the goal from the beginning. I remember sitting in our very first MaRS meeting in 2008 and knowing, “we want to make something”.
We knew this technology had world-changing potential. We wanted to apply it in a way that was really going to help people, to empower people. The way to do that for us was to create really accessible technology people could have in their hands and for everyday use. The idea of creating a product was something I’d always wanted to do.
There was absolutely nothing else in the market that could come close to what we were trying to accomplish. We saw such a compelling need that we wanted to solve, that we moved forward with it. And all of us being design conscious, we wanted the solution to be an amazing design.
What made you decide to go with crowdfunding and Indiegogo?
Raising capital is not easy and when you can do it from a supportive community, that is the best kind of capital out there. It’s great to have people saying, “Yes, I want this,” and helping you bring it to life. We knew we were creating the future and we wanted to give people the opportunity to join us in the process.
The campaign was really successful. You were able to raise almost double your actual goal. How much planning actually went into that?
We worked extremely hard on it. We worked for weeks just setting up the campaign. We staffed it with three people. We were there online watching it happen in real time, answering people’s questions and concerns. We had hundreds of comments over the course of the campaign and we tried hard to communicate with everybody — we had people emailing us questions left, right and center. We wanted to be responsive and helpful to get them more excited about Muse’s potential.
Indiegogo was very helpful. They were warm, open, supportive and encouraging. They were all awesome in helping us understand what we needed to do to build a great campaign — to frame it and to break through the clutter.
What were some of those things Indiegogo recommended to create a great campaign?
Don’t just assume that you’re going to put up a campaign page and that you’re going to get funding. You really want to rally your network beforehand and you want to start with a strong campaign. You want to make sure you have one to three people standing there, reading the message boards, being able to address questions, comments and concerns, take a look at other successful campaigns see what they have done, see the best practices, what perk levels they offer, what perk levels people tend to purchase at and really, truly think about what makes sense for a perk to deliver, because you don’t want to spend all of your time when you’re raising money to build your favorite, wireless hair dryer that is controlled by your iPhone. You don’t want to spend time shipping bottles of hair dye and food coloring.
You decided to use ShopLocket when you started taking pre-orders. What made you decide to use ShopLocket at that stage?
We chose ShopLocket because we needed an easy-to-set-up mechanism to be able to take pre-orders and reservations without charging people. In the Indiegogo community, people are there to support you through the creation of a product. That’s the contract you make with an Indiegogo supporter. They’re not there purchasing your product, they’re there contributing to your campaign and as a thank you, they get one of our “perks”. When you are actually taking pre-orders, it’s a different transactional relationship that you’re creating.
Our first commitment was to our enthusiastic Indiegogo community. Their contributions were dedicated to our first production run and they’ve been a core part of our early success. Asking for others outside of that community to be pre-billed without the same Indiegogo perks wouldn’t be fair. Shoplocket allows those people to reserve a copy without being charged until we can ship within a reasonable fulfillment period.
“We saw such a compelling need that we wanted to solve that we moved forward with it. It always woke me up. It compelled itself.”
You had a booth at CES this year. Would you recommend this type of event to other founders? What were the major “take-aways” you had?
CES is great. We had been to CES in the past on our own without a booth. We were lucky to be able to do it really inexpensively. I would recommend CES for anybody who has a great product looking to find partnerships to help launch it to at least attend CES. Walk around with your product, show it to everybody you think might be able help you manufacture, finance, ship, create it, etc. It takes you out of your own vacuum and starts to connect you with the world of business. That can really help you multiply your product efforts.
A lot of companies have trouble finding reliable partners for manufacturing. How did you go about finding your manufacturing partners?
We first built a manufacturing team in-house by bringing on people in Toronto who really specialized in bringing product to the manufacturing stage. We ended up with a whole business unit. I think Tom and the team at First Stages were the first people we connected with, and Tom ended up building a little manufacturing team in-house. Then we hired an innovation team to help us identify the right firms in China. We also talked to a lot of other hardware startups and relatively established companies about what and who they used and what their experiences had been.
Another one of the biggest challenges hardware companies have is finding stable distribution channels, what channels are you focusing on?
For us, we’re going to begin primarily online, because it allows us to have a greater understanding about our consumer. It will be able to support a lot more messaging for a product people need detailed information about. We have several enthusiastic retail launch partners interested in supporting Muse. They range from mass market to specialty channels targeting special needs like ADD, meditators and the disabled. We can’t tell you how many people who have contacted us and said, “We want this product.”
“I've been given a lot of advice but if I were to give advice to another entrepreneur I think it would be that the manufacturing process is always going to take longer than you thought.”
What challenges did you face in designing something wearable and consumer friendly?
I brought together a design team with two lead people. One of them was a professor at UofT and one of them was a good friend of mine. I don’t know how you describe the process. Design is a mix of painfully exacting tiny, tiny details where you need to figure out how things fit together in the most minute way. A matter of millimeters is essential and then there are these leaps of inspiration where we were like, “well what if we did this?” Everything changes.
How many moments of “everything changes” do you think you guys went through in the process?
A lot of them. ‘Oh hold on, we can do this’ – I remember the first time we said that. The prototype that we have now that goes across your forehead is miles from what we had done with an earlier version — it was shaped like a horseshoe and the two edges of it just touched your forehead with a little gap in the front and circled around in the back of the head. Somebody accidentally put it on backwards and came in and the reaction was, “That thing’s awesome!” We looked at him and we were like “Oh my, that’s it!”
You’re pioneering the way for an entirely new realm of computer interaction. Do you ever find it hard to get others to see the same vision of the future that you have? Is there a lot of resistance?
In our research we’ve found one of the greatest barriers to adoption of this technology is misinformation, so we make a big effort to educate people on how the technology works. But often people will be pretty excited and say “What? What did you just say you do? Tell me again.” It’s not that they didn’t hear it the first time, it’s more that they’re so blown away they need to hear it again to fully process it. I don’t think we’ve ever actually had someone put up a lot of resistance in the sense that they didn’t get it, or didn’t see how it could fit into the future the way we present it.
What’s your current state of mind?
When and where were you happiest?
Amongst my team
What is your idea of misery?
Avoidable tragedy - the wailing of a mother who has lost her family. I'm thinking of the horrendous tragedy of the recent building collapse - that's misery.
What is your favourite book?
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
Which superpower would you most like to have?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Bringing together a place where people love to come to work.
Which living person do you most admire?
What is your greatest extravagance?
Life is filled with deliciousness and sumptuousness, even and especially in the day to day - all of life is extravagant!
What is your background?
My background includes neuroscience, design, and business.
What was your involvement in fashion? What type of clothes did you create?
The clothing I made always referenced science and technology — it was intellectual fashion.
Where do you see thought controlled computing being in 5 years?
In five years, I think people will know about thought-controlled computing as something that can be used as a productivity tool paired with their phone or computer. But it won’t yet be entirely pervasive. Just one year ago, almost no one I talked to knew what thought-controlled computing was, and I would always have to explain it. Six months ago, maybe 20% of the people I talked to sort of knew what I was referring to and would say things like “Oh yeah, I saw something like that on 60 Minutes”. Today most people say something like, “I heard of something that does that”. And often that something is Muse! I think it could take about 25 years until thought-controlled computing will finally become pervasive. I see it as being on a similar timeline to that of voice and speech control, and in fact, I think the timeline for voice control might have taken even longer than that.
Stephen Lake Co-Founder of Thalmic Labs asked, “What do you know that everyone else doesn’t?”
That Muse and brain sensing will change the world similar to the degree to which the wheel, the telegram, the car, the airplane have impacted our lives.
What question would you pose our next interviewee?
If you were a young startup founder that wanted to get into hardware what are the first steps you would take to get started?