First published May 2003
Michael Merzenich does not believe he is an entrepreneur. Yet the UCSF neurophysiologist is in the process of founding his second company in less than a decade. That is not to mention his 51 patents, either his alone or shared, that have added $8.6 million to University coffers in the last 23 years. So how does the Francis A. Sooy professor at the UCSF Keck Foundation Center describe himself? "I'm a basic scientist interested in practical things." Simple enough. But for a University trying to nurture its entrepreneurial culture and generate income from its intellectual property portfolios, Merzenich has also become something else: a role model. It is easy to understand why.
As a career scientist who has helped to validate and expand the concept of brain plasticity, defined as the capacity of the brain to rewire itself in development and during learning, Merzenich has consistently created value from innovation. His first group of patents, for example, licensed to Advanced Bionics, led to the commercial development of the cochlear implant, an FDA-approved medical device that has restored useful hearing to many thousands of deaf individuals.
Another group of patents led to the formation of Scientific Learning, a $40 million software company in Oakland, California with 147 employees that develops software to accelerate learning in language- and learning-impaired children. His latest company, Neuroscience Solutions, is using his understanding of the brain processes underlying memory, cognition and movement control to build remedial training tools for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients.
"There is something refreshing about facing up to a few of the hard problems of the real world," Merzenich explains. His willingness to take on practical challenges is perhaps one reason why he has continued to apply the principle inherent in plasticity -- that the brain is open to change -- to the treatment of different brain disorders, often despite skepticism from clinicians. This insistence is rooted in decades of brain-mapping experiments and a desire to apply his discoveries to real-world problems, and does not suggest iconoclasm as much as empiricism. Indeed, Merzenich's first great success -- cochlear implants -- resulted from a design imperative that fused science and engineering. Put simply, "Any implant had to be both operationally effective and last a lifetime."
But the implant might not have happened at all if a young Merzenich had listened to his mentor. "When I began working on the cochlear implant, my mentor was quite emphatic. He told me not to do it, because I had the potential to be a world-class neuroscientist. His advice was well intentioned, but wrong."
This wouldn't be the last time Merzenich detoured off the academic fast track to develop an idea with practical applications -- something a pure laboratory researcher is often loath to do. He also carries a hard-won lesson from the experience: patent every important invention. At the time, he believed that because the cochlear implants had promise, he would share the technology for free to ensure its commercial development. When he and his group later attempted to encourage manufacturers to produce the devices developed in their laboratory, they discovered that interested companies required patents to protect the large investment required to commercialize them.
"I never thought of writing a patent," says Merzenich. "I thought it was our job to give our invention away as faculty members working for a public university. It turns out that companies need patents for very sensible reasons." Despite these impediments, the cochlear implant developed at UCSF has been very successfully commercialized and resulted in nearly $5 million in University licensing income.
After the development of the cochlear implant, Merzenich and his team began to apply the principle of brain plasticity to address the problems of reading- and learning-impaired children. As scientists who are experts in the study of hearing, they were particularly attuned to the importance of aural skills for the development of language and reading abilities. In time, they pinpointed a category of children who have difficulty matching the letters on the page with the sounds they hear, the result of flaws in their brains' speech-processing machinery. Further research strongly indicated that specific forms of training could potentially reverse such learning disabilities.
Collaborating with a Rutgers research group and his UCSF colleagues, William Jenkins and Christoph Schreiner, Merzenich developed a novel class of computer-controlled training tools. Disguised in a "game" format, this training software was designed to refine the aural processors in the brains of impaired children. These exercises dramatically improved those children's ability to understand and use speech and written language.
One of the earliest trial participants, a six-year-old student, raised his cognition from that of a two-and-a-half-year-old to that of an average six-year-old over twenty days of training. "We could not believe the difference in the capabilities of these children after they had spent only a limited time in training," says Merzenich. "We knew almost immediately that we had a responsibility to get this out to more of the millions of other children who could potentially benefit from it."
To reach the public who would benefit from this discovery, Merzenich took a sabbatical from UCSF and founded Scientific Learning, which currently brings the software to more than a thousand school districts, where more than 250,000 children have now been trained. The complex program trains the child to make more accurate distinctions about the sound parts of words, known as "phonemes." Programmers designed the software to report the results for all the individual kids via the Internet. The result is the largest database in the world on learning and children. "This work has been very heartening, because so many children have had their lives changed through the practical implementation of our laboratory research," says Merzenich.
Merzenich originally intended that Scientific Learning would also address and develop tools to train the brain to attack degenerative brain-related diseases. However, for Scientific Learning, addressing the challenges of bringing software to market for school-age children, developing additional brain science-based programs for those children, incorporating changes, and making a profit while they were at it proved difficult enough.
The brain's remarkable ability to recover following the trauma from stroke, coupled with its capacity, and indeed its apparent need to learn constantly, is the principle behind Merzenich's new company, Neuroscience Solutions. Bringing business and software lessons learned at Scientific Learning as well as 30 years of lab work at UCSF, Merzenich and Neuroscience Solutions are working to develop computer-based programs for ameliorating the expressions of intractable neurological diseases and disorders, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and schizophrenia, by intensively retraining the brain to rejuvenate its information-processing and movement-control machinery, and to re-sharpen deteriorating memory and cognitive and movement abilities itself.
Call it the Merzenich mind-set, a kind of knowledge-building that, envisioned as a tree, branches out from an initial discovery to a panoply of practical devices, with an upper canopy of teams and companies. But then Merzenich is used to being out on a limb or, to switch metaphors, alone in a crowd. "Targeting a few great practical human problems has been a highly exhilarating extension of my basic science research career. It has greatly enriched both my scientific and human perspective."