According to Reuters, Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, has approached competitor Synchron Inc. about a potential investment after his own biotech company Neuralink has lagged in developing an implantable brain chip.
Musk co-founded Neuralink in 2016 to develop implantable brain-chip interfaces that connect humans and computers. Musk, like his ambitious projections for his electric vehicles, claimed in 2019 that Neuralink was aiming for regulatory approval by the end of 2020.
Later in 2021, when the company had yet to begin human trials, Musk stated at a Wall Street Journal conference that he expected them to begin by 2022, but the company has yet to receive regulatory approval, even as of the time of writing. Synchron, on the other hand, received the necessary approvals last year.
Synchron, the startup that beat Neuralink
Synchron, based in Brooklyn, New York, was founded in 2016 and has a smaller team of 60 employees, compared to Neuralink’s 300, according to Reuters. The startup is also working with relatively small budgets, having raised only about $65 million so far, compared to the $363 million raised by Musk-backed Neuralink.
When completed, the startup’s brain chip will not require surgical implantation inside the brain, making it far superior and easier to use than Neuralink’s device. The startup began human trials in the United States last month, and it has successfully used its device on 4 patients in Australia.
Elon Musk is said to have recently contacted Synchron’s founder and CEO, Thomas Oxley, to discuss a potential deal. It is unclear whether the transaction will result in the two companies collaborating or tying up. According to sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Synchron has not decided whether to accept the investment, and there is no guarantee that the deal will go through.
Problems that ail Neuralink
An animal-rights organisation filed a complaint earlier this year alleging that Neuralink was torturing its test monkeys after 15 of the company’s 23 monkeys died. In response, Neuralink stated that it had to euthanize some monkeys due to complications such as device failure or infections after surgery, and that it has since improved its device design & surgical protocols.
Apart from the regulators, even the company’s founders appear to have lost faith in the company’s work. Musk was one of eight investors who contributed to the 2016 launch of Neuralink. 6 years later, only two people remain, including Musk. Max Hodak, one of the investors and also the company’s President, left Neuralink last year to invest in Synchron earlier this year.
The slow progress has reportedly irritated Musk enough to seek greener pastures with his money and in order to realise his vision of a brain-computer interface. However, after the report surfaced, Musk also tweeted that there will be an update on Neuralink’s progress in October.
Based on Musk’s previous promises about Neuralink and other companies, it would be foolish to place too much faith in this tweet. We also know from the Twitter saga that Musk can move quickly to acquire or invest in something he wants. It remains to be seen whether this works in his favour.