MIT Kills Its Partnership With Wacky ‘Brain Upload’ Company
As MIT backs out for now, Nectome’s footing crumbles.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
A few weeks back, I reported on Nectome, a company that wants terminally ill people to undergo a euthanasia procedure to preserve their brains. The startup promoted the idea that, one day, it could take the preserved brains, upload their data and then use that information for different, supposedly positive purposes. Now, despite having raised more than $200,000 in deposits, Nectome won't have MIT's support anymore.
The Nectome-MIT link
Nectome was connected to MIT through neuroscientist and professor Edward Boyden. While Boyden doesn't have any personal affiliation with Nectome, MIT's Media Lab held a subcontract for Nectome's NIMH small business grant. Boyden's team sought to combine elements of Nectome's chemistry with their invention, expansion microscopy. That combination, if successful, would have allowed Nectome, MIT and other organizations to visualize brain circuits better for research.
Why the split?
In a formal statement, MIT called into question both Nectome's plans and the statements the company had made to promote itself. It asserted that, at least for now, scientists can't say whether the brain preservation Nectome touted is even possible. It also pointed out the difficulty of creating consciousness--that is, consciousness is somewhat still hard to define, and we don't know what the brain-data simulations Nectome proposed would feel like.
MIT's decision doesn't necessarily mean MIT is abandoning Nectome's idea forever, nor does it mean that Nectome founder Robert McIntyre is wrong about eventually being able to offer a sort of immortality through brain data. It's simply admitting that, ethics aside, there's tons more work to do before anybody can move forward with the idea. Still, that admission might prove fatal to Nectome, as MIT has significant clout that other scientific organizations and investors absolutely pay attention to.
Slow and steady (with evidence) wins the business race
Nectome's situation offers a valuable lesson for entrepreneurs in that opening your doors and making claims has to be done with incredible sensitivity to timing and fact. For years, companies have learned the hard way that unsubstantiated claims can kill credibility and financial stability and even risk consumer safety. This is no different. While I'll give Nectome the benefit of the doubt and say they probably don't have the intent to defraud anyone given that deposits are refundable, its failure to provide proof of concept legitimately should make any investor nervous. And because of the ethics involved in Nectome's methodology, despite noting their technology is in the research phase, the company should have been even more sensitive to the need to provide that proof. It is essentially a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
Thinking outside the box is usually fabulous. But you don't need to rush as you climb out. Slow down. Get evidence. When you can take that evidence and show others that, yes, you were right, only then do you truly have the foundation successful businesses are built on.