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Reclaiming lost daily life: LIFESCAPES takes on the challenge of innovation for patients with movement disorders using BMI technology


"Expanding the possibilities of rehabilitation for patients with severe paralysis after stroke and helping them realize their hopes"

In recent years, "Brain Machine Interface (BMI)" technology has been attracting worldwide attention. When damage to the cranial nervous system leaves the hands with severe movement disorders, it isn't easy to treat with existing methods. We interviewed Mr. Junichi Ushiba, CEO of LIFESCAPES Inc. who is rewriting that common myth with BMI technology.

Bringing out the "plasticity" of the brain by linking the brain with machines

Please give us the business outline of LIFESCAPES.

We aim to commercialize our medical device that uses BMI technology to bring out the brain's plasticity and help restore motor functions lost due to neurological injuries or illnesses like stroke. Simply put, plasticity is the ability to heal.

Tell us specifically about the development of your medical device that makes use of the features of BMI.

First, I would like to explain the movement disorders we are challenging. Stroke is a disease in which blood vessels in the brain get blocked or ruptured. The nerves in the brain are deprived of nutrients, leading to the death of some nerve cells. When nerve cells die, they are very difficult to regenerate, unlike cells such as the skin. Therefore, the death of nerve cells can result in disabilities like paralysis. After a stroke, about one-third of patients lose motor functions. You may meet people on the street suffering from the aftereffects of movement disorders. Among such movement disorders, the hands have been particularly difficult to approach with conventional medical care. Hands are often used in daily life and are a point of contact that connects us to society. Despite being such an important part of our bodies, they are difficult to heal.

Indeed, the rehabilitation of hand disorders is complex, even with modern medicine.

That's right. Therefore, I thought of a new therapeutic approach from the neuroscience standpoint. Since the brain has a network structure like a spider's web, it has an intrinsic ability to bypass damaged areas. In other words, many neural pathways remain around damaged brain cells that bypass the injury and back up. We call such neural pathways "compensatory circuits".  I thought that if we could skillfully train compensatory circuits, it might be possible to correctly send motor signals produced in the brain to the muscles to make the hand move again.

The challenge was how to train compensatory circuits. Accordingly, our approach was to "confirm the state of activity of compensatory circuits from EEG." The patient puts on a headphone-type electroencephalograph and is asked to try and move his hand. This causes activity in the brain, which then creates electrical signals. The electrical signals are captured and analyzed by our AI to visualize the extent to which the compensatory circuits in the brain are active. When the patient tries to move a hand that has become paralyzed after a stroke and activates the compensatory circuits, our AI responds and operates a robot attached to the patient's hand to support hand and finger movement. However, even if the patient wants to move their hand, the compensatory circuits in the brain may not activate correctly, in which case the AI will not respond, and the robot will not operate. The patient learns how to mobilize the compensatory circuits in the brain through repeated trial and error while referring to the BMI response. Such training will encourage the use of compensatory circuits.


Thank you for your detailed explanation. How did you develop the LIFESCAPES AI algorithm?

We are developing our AI based on previous physiological knowledge. Past research has revealed in considerable detail where the brain's compensatory circuits that must be activated to restore lost functions are located and what kind of signals they emit. Our AI is constructed based on those academic findings. Humans cannot consciously choose which neural circuits to use, but our device can visualize which compensatory circuits are activated in the brain, so we can make a patient aware of the appropriate way of using neural circuits.

What led you to start an R&D venture while researching neuroscience at university?

If the hand is left paralyzed, therapeutic approaches are quite difficult. The standard form of rehabilitation was to rebuild your life while changing your dominant hand and using products for convenience called self-help tools. But after all, you want to be able to use your own hands to do things, even if just a little. Therefore, I wanted to create a method that would fulfill that desire and was accumulating research and technologies one by one. The use of BMI yielded the surprising result that a paralyzed hand could be recovered. Little by little, the academic community began to understand the concept, and we progressed with industry-academia collaboration, nurturing the seeds of practical applications. However, around 2018, even though we could reach the stage of prototyping the product, the industry-academia collaboration came to a halt for various reasons, and we were unable to implement it in society. Such a wasted opportunity. I then started my business in 2018 with the idea that I should take a risk, inherit the technology and commercialize it to deliver BMI to the world.

Could you tell us some challenges you have faced since the company's founding?

The most challenging part was acquiring a sense of creating a business as a startup. The founding members were faculty from the medical school I was conducting joint research with at the time, and everyone, myself included, was grappling with business. We started by studying the basics, such as our core competencies, how to proceed with fundraising, and how to develop a business plan.

In the early days of our company, we had a mix of various technologies and visions, but now we have added a solid contrast and have settled on 1 company/1 issue. LIFESCAPES, which specializes in BMI technology, and INTEP, which specializes in medical data linkage services, have been spun off into separate companies that take advantage of their strengths.
Identifying our core competencies and adjusting our organizational structure to match them was very difficult, but it was a great experience.

Wearable sensor developed by LIFESCAPES

Aware of the commonalities between AI and the brain at an early age, I headed straight to the path of research

Mr. Ushiba, did you have an interest in brain science and AI from an early age?

When I was in elementary school, my information teacher set up a PC on campus and invited graduate students to give lectures on AI after school. One day, I was invited by a friend to attend a lecture and was able to experience interacting with AI and solving riddles. At first, the AI could only answer vaguely, but through dialogue with us, it became smarter and smarter. At that time, it suddenly dawned on me that human intellect and intelligence could be programmed.
When I entered junior high school, an alumnus who by then was a famous brain scientist visited my school to talk about the brain. I was very intrigued when I heard about the plasticity of the brain, in which the characteristics of the brain change significantly depending on the environment we are placed in and our experiences. Even as a child, I remember feeling that AI and the brain are similar. That made me want to research and learn about the brain through manufacturing. I was good at programming, so I went to university intending to take a medical approach from science and engineering.

Later, you enrolled in the Graduate School of Science and Technology at Keio University. What ideas did you have as a master's and doctoral student?

In my senior year of undergraduate studies, I joined a laboratory specializing in measurement engineering. The laboratory operated with the ideology of a garage laboratory, i.e., you must make all the equipment necessary for research independently. Thanks to such an environment, I learned the basics of engineering from my student days, such as the design of biological signal measuring instruments and motor control methods. To learn more about the working of the nervous system, I attended medical school every day and devoted myself to clinical research with medical professionals in the evenings after general practice hours were over. In this way, I went back and forth between two laboratories, one for manufacturing and the other for brain research, and obtained my doctorate at 25.

We aim to be an organization that handles cutting-edge technology but with a gentle and not inorganic view

What points do you consider important in startup recruitment?

Our core BMI is the culmination of cross-disciplinary knowledge— Brain science, rehabilitation medicine, measurement engineering, and robotics technology. A deep and essential understanding of each area is required for any position within the company. Furthermore, while I think that BMI has a sci-fi image, I believe it is very important for our business to be close to people. LIFESCAPES' mission is to deliver cutting-edge technology so that each patient can reclaim a peaceful daily life and live with a feeling of happiness. In addition to having a deep and essential understanding of medicine and engineering, I would like to make it a common value of the company to "view people kindly." While cherishing these thoughts, I want to create a future with people who can be strongly united.


Could you tell us about your plans to create a strong startup organization?

When you're working, it's easy to rush through each day with task deadlines and unexpected problems. However, even in such a situation, I believe it is important to ensure that the perspective of each employee is not lowered. It is very important for us to always keep in mind why we are at this company and what we want to achieve, and that is why I talk to everyone about this from time to time.

Having passion in your heart is important for the organization at LIFESCAPES.

That's right. One day, out of the blue, you may have a stroke and be left unable to do the things you used to take for granted. Many patients in the world have to live the rest of their lives with such inconveniences. But we have a revolutionary technology here that could somehow solve this. That's why we want to get together, be a team and do what's right, scientifically speaking. Always value a long-term perspective while maintaining enthusiasm even in busy work every day. Unsophisticated words and feelings ooze out from your attitude and words and can spread to the rest of the organization. I spend my days thinking about how I want LIFESCAPES to be an organization with a strong spirit that looks ahead to the future.

Academia and society. The importance of creating value for both

Please tell us about any past events or programs that have benefited you.

I found BRAVE, an acceleration program offered by Beyond Next Ventures, to be of great help. When I never thought I would work at a corporate organization, I found myself in a situation where my research would come to naught if I didn't push myself forward and the option of starting my own business suddenly became a reality. At a loss as to where to start, I was invited to participate in a morning seminar hosted by LINK-J. Someone from Beyond Next Ventures was there, and that's how I learned about the existence of BRAVE.

Through the two-month training at BRAVE, I was able to not only learn about business planning and funding but also get to know people in the industry whom I can trust, and I am very grateful for this opportunity.

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The challenge of Beyond Next Ventures, which continues to challenge the creation of startups that change the world with researchers

“The greatest joy of being involved in Deep Tech is seeing the moment when the future changes.” Masashi Tsuda, who himself devoted himself to research when he was a student…

As a university faculty member, you are also involved in education. Do you have a message for students and young researchers interested in starting a business?

I believe, "You can start a business anytime, so you don't need to rush." I want students to be enthusiastic and engaged in what they can only learn at university. As it is called Deep Tech, I don't think you can become a "deep" R&D startup without highly specialized knowledge or research background in science and technology. Will you be able to set new international standards and continue to create deep innovations that will keep your company at the forefront? You don't have to do everything yourself, but I think you can start your own business even after investing in yourself to become a highly specialized person able to master deep science and technology. Don't be hasty and give it a go. Try to publish a high-impact paper that no one else has attempted in the laboratory. Once you complete the research, you will feel very confident.

Besides, there are many similarities between university research and business creation. How to come up with ideas, steps to verify, and how to scale. The good thing about academic research is that you can do it independently. Completing university research with a master's or doctoral degree not only gives you confidence but also helps you acquire many useful skills when jumping into a startup. I encourage students to acquire universal knowledge and experience by committing themselves to research.

As a professor at the Department of Bioinformatics of Keio University's Faculty of Science and Technology and the CEO of a startup, what are the strengths that come from holding two positions?

I'd say there are two points. One is that my experience in academia has been useful in managing a startup.

LIFESCAPES' medical device is a novel product based on innovative concepts. Innovative might sound good to the ear, but in reality, novelty is not readily accepted in the medical world. No physician would suddenly want to use a novel and unusual product on their precious patients, which is why advanced medical equipment is evaluated strictly to see if it is truly reliable.

In this case, my research career at the university is an endorsement. After a decade of diligent research, we have verified BMI technology at the level of medical physiology, published high-quality papers internationally, and many papers on its efficacy and safety through clinical research. We have been conducting scientific work for years at the university, including a meta-analysis initiative of collecting data on the therapeutic effectiveness of the technology in every country and region and what effect it has had on the treatment of over 200 patients, analyzing the evidence, and presenting it to the world in a scientifically fair manner.

People in the world of medicine and healthcare have been watching our activities for a long time. It's a pleasant surprise when the physicians I meet for the first time tell me, "I've been watching you at academic conferences. You've finally turned your ideas into a product." We receive many words of support not only from research bases such as university hospitals but also from physicians at city hospitals and medical device manufacturers. After starting my own business, I realized that academic activities at universities are significant drivers for gaining the trust and solidarity of the medical and industrial worlds. If I had only remained a university faculty member, I would never have realized that many people in the world are doing what is scientifically correct and attempting to update healthcare actively and that they are not limited to the people I meet at academic conferences I usually attend. These experiences gave me a lot of confidence in myself.

Many people were watching your research activities, which seems to have increased your motivation.

That is correct. Another point is that the management of a startup has also proven to be useful in my activities as a university faculty member. I was unaware of many diverse issues in the market when researching at university. By getting exposure to the needs of the actual market, I was able to notice points of view that were lacking by just working in the laboratory. It is an opportunity to explore how technology should be developed more effectively at universities.

This system of giving back to society and academia is called reverse translational research. I have seen firsthand the benefits of such a cycle on both sides. As long as I take risks and work across two disciplines, universities and society must benefit, and I feel that this cycle is one of LIFESCAPES' strengths.

Finally, Mr. Ushiba, please tell us about the world you wish to realize through LIFESCAPES.

Functional neurological disorders, such as hemiplegia, which is a sequela after a stroke, are areas that can be diagnosed but difficult to treat. Through our activities, we can treat movement disorders caused by neurological diseases and injuries. People will no longer have to give up. I want to create such an era.  I want to create a norm for the future so that 20 to 30 years from now, the next generation will look back and say, "There was a time when nerve injuries and diseases could not be treated."

Thank you!

Editor's comments

Mr. Ushiba received his doctorate at the age of 25 and was running his laboratory at the age of 33. An up-and-coming researcher who launched his R&D startup aimed at social implementation. The editorial department was impressed with how Mr. Ushiba talked about his youthful feelings and the importance of being close to people while he continues to take on challenges that ordinary people would never have imagined.

A stroke can suddenly develop one day and cause paralysis of the limbs. We shall keep an eye on the future of LIFESCAPES, which continues to run toward a future where paralysis caused by a stroke can be treated.