Utah is the Place for Bio-engineering; New Devices are Changing Lives
Blackrock Microsystems maintenance engineer Chrisman Cook puts electrode arrays underneath a microscope at the company's office in Research Park in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Chris Samuels, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — At 16, Florian Solzbacher said he wanted to connect the power of the brain with the ability of a prosthetic limb.
Now in his 40s, as president and chairman of Blackrock Microsystems, a biotechnology company based in Salt Lake City, Solzbacher is seeing the fruits of his labors all over the world and it is changing lives.
"Five years ago when I'd tell clinicians in Europe about putting an electrode on the brain, they'd have said, 'Hell no,' and they'd be thinking of stories of Frankenstein. But the truth is, we are showing what is technologically possible and it is working," the University of Utah engineering professor and local business owner said Wednesday.
His innovative technology is at the root of projects all over the country that are demystifying epilepsy and Parkinson's disorders, interpreting brain signals and helping people who have been paralyzed to experience brain-controlled movement of their hands for the first time in years.
"I cherish the independence I had before my injury," said Ian Burkhart, who is paralyzed from his shoulders down as a result of a diving accident when he was 19. He is the subject of an article printed this month in the academic journal Nature.
A silicon-based, 100-channel electrode, called the Utah array — which was created by a U. professor in the 90s — was implanted in Burkhart's brain to allow an external computer to read whatever crosses his brain when he thinks about moving his otherwise immovable hand. With the help of the Utah-borne technological assistance, Burkhart's hand has been reanimated, allowing him to perform various motions he had all but lost as a result of his tragic accident.
"Doctors said I could move my shoulders a little, but nothing else for the rest of my life," Burkhart said. "To have that back is huge."
Solzbacher and his team at Blackrock are working on a wireless version to be able to help thousands of patients who might benefit from the brain signal-reading technology, like Burkhart.
"If you want to control a computer, your wheelchair, a prosthesis or actually feed back into your biological limb, everything starts here," Solzbacher said, referring to the tiny electrode. "If you can't tap into that information, none of that works very well."
He said the chip collects 30 to 50 megabytes of data per second, so within a day's time, it has generated a terabyte or two, depending on what's going on. And all of the data must be clear to be useful to researchers and the various programs they officiate, be it during surgery or in application.
But the system is still out of reach for the common person, as the electrode costs a mere $6,000, not including the external components necessary to utilize information gleaned from the brain. On top of that, the FDA places a lot of constraints on the ongoing research, disqualifying many patients from access to the potentially life changing technologies.
Cases of quadriplegia and paraplegia, however, aren't as popular or common as cancer and HIV, or other diseases where research funding is readily available, he said. So the development and marketing, despite already earning FDA approval, isn't expanding as quickly as it could.
"To come up with the clinical product for the application would be wonderful," Solzbacher said, adding that as an engineer, he sees no limit to the potential.
"But when it gets to a clinical application, there's no reason this should not be like a pacemaker or a cochlear implant," said Marcus Gerhardt, a lifelong friend of Solzbacher, co-founder of Blackrock and also a German engineer. He said the motivation is bigger than the technology — for everyone involved.
"Once you start interacting with the first patient who needs that, you realize this is it," Solzbacher said. "It's really like an epiphany, a really profound moment when you say, this is what you want to do."
Blackrock has more FDA-cleared devices for the brain than any other company in the world. The company has done it without help from major donors and has even lost money to federal projects that were cut short.
"The reality is that there is nothing out there that gets remotely close to what we can do," Solzbacher said, adding that the process of tapping into the body's "big, central computer" is complex. "The body doesn't want something inside. You have to hide it, make it stable, make it robust and make it work long enough that you can get useful information from it."
Every step forward, he said, puts them at the cusp of this project really accelerating, but they're hoping for more support.
And while they think the company might grow more quickly in a place like Silicon Valley, Solzbacher and Gerhardt say Utah is the place for bioengineering.
"We've got two great universities in town, a bunch up and down from here and these are great engineering schools. There are outstanding hospitals and health care systems here, and we have a history of successful medical device and health system entrepreneurship," Gerhardt said.
"People snicker at the term, 'Silicon Slopes,' but I believe it is. It's the health care capital of the world."
A lot of patients would jump at the chance of gaining even a tiny bit of freedom and independence in their lives, Solzbacher said, and while it's always been his dream, he'd also just like to help people have better lives.
"It's a very powerful motivator. It gives a lot of meaning to life and the time you've been given to make a difference," he said. The Utah array and its limitless possibilities in the health care market, Solzbacher said, is only beginning to be seen.
The barrier has been broken; he and the team at Blackrock have bridged the bionic brain, connecting it with nonworking limbs and other parts of the body. They just want their hard-earned technological advances to make it into the right hands — hands like Burkhart's, which would be useless without it.
For more information on the bionic brain and its capabilities, visit www.blackrockmicro.com.