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Tara Thiagarajan, Founder of Brainnovations Winner Sapien Labs, on building a global platform for brain research that truly captures the diversity of humanity

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What sur­prised you the most from the Judges’ ques­tions and feed­back dur­ing the Brain­no­va­tions Pitch Con­test?

I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised to see the sig­nif­i­cant range and depth of knowl­edge shown by the judg­ing pan­el, lead­ing to very spe­cif­ic and use­ful ques­tions around the key chal­lenges to build our glob­al research plat­form.

In a nut­shell, what is the core idea behind Sapi­en Labs?

The core idea is to fur­ther our under­stand­ing of the large dif­fer­ences between indi­vid­ual brains in order to man­age our brain health and brain states bet­ter.  This rests on a glob­al plat­form called brain­base (brainbase.io) for research col­lab­o­ra­tion and large scale data aggre­ga­tion, as well as nov­el ana­lyt­i­cal approach­es to fea­ture extrac­tion from the EEG sig­nals — we’ve cho­sen EEG to start since right now it is a very scal­able and cost-effec­tive brain imag­ing tech­nique with the poten­tial to deliv­er tremen­dous insights.

When and how did the idea come to you?

I have worked for over ten years on brain sig­nals at var­i­ous scales (sin­gle-cell elec­tro­phys­i­ol­o­gy, LFP, ECOG, EEG), look­ing to under­stand struc­ture in the sig­nals with nov­el ana­lyt­i­cal approach­es such as machine learn­ing, graph the­o­ry  and oth­ers. Over the years this led to var­i­ous insights to bet­ter pre­dict cog­ni­tive out­comes, as well as into the enor­mous diver­gence of the dynam­ics across indi­vid­u­als — and how this was informed by con­text and envi­ron­ment.  Under­stand­ing indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in the brain, how they arise and what they mean is a very nascent endeav­or, we are build­ing a plat­form for data aggre­ga­tion and analy­sis that is tru­ly glob­al and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the diver­si­ty of human­i­ty.

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What’s your vision for Brain Health in 2025 and how do you envi­sion Sapi­en Labs as part of it?

Our under­stand­ing of brain health will under­go a major shift by 2025, from sub­jec­tive symp­tom-based ‘dis­or­ders’ defined through ques­tion­naires to more phys­i­o­log­i­cal def­i­n­i­tions and per­son­al­ized treat­ments.  Con­sid­er­ing ‘depres­sion’ as a gen­er­al dis­or­der of the brain, for instance, is a lit­tle like treat­ing ‘fatigue’ as a gen­er­al dis­or­der of the body.  There are a myr­i­ad under­ly­ing caus­es that will have dif­fer­ent diag­no­sis and treat­ment when phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly defined. With the brain as a dynam­ic and expe­ri­ence-depen­dent organ, per­son­al­ized approach­es are also going to be impor­tant.  I envi­sion Sapi­en Labs as being a key dri­ver of this tran­si­tion, help­ing build diag­nos­tic tools and bio­mark­ers through enabling larg­er, bet­ter struc­tured glob­al datasets and a wider array of ana­lyt­i­cal tools for the brain health and men­tal health com­mu­ni­ties.

How are you fund­ing the orga­ni­za­tion so far, and are you plan­ning to raise funds this year? 

Sapi­en Labs is a 501© 3 non-prof­it found­ed in 2016. I have per­son­al­ly com­mit­ted the funds to build the plat­form as well to set up the first 100 Neu­ro­labs in Asia, Africa and Latin Amer­i­ca.  Addi­tion­al­ly, we are rais­ing fund­ing through grants for spe­cif­ic projects and to enable Neu­ro­lab part­ners to expand their efforts.   We will also build rev­enue streams in the form of sub­scrip­tions for our tools to fund the open access aspects of our plat­form, as well as enable mech­a­nisms for dona­tion.

How do you/ will you val­i­date that your plat­form mea­sures and does what it is sup­posed to?

In gen­er­al, val­i­da­tion will come in the form of plat­form usage and vol­ume and qual­i­ty of data con­tri­bu­tions.  For spe­cif­ic projects to iden­ti­fy pre­dic­tive tools, bio­mark­ers and diag­nos­tics, we expect to see ret­ro­spec­tive val­i­da­tion first, and ulti­mate­ly they will have to be put to test prospec­tive­ly through clin­i­cal or non-clin­i­cal tri­als.

Tell us a cou­ple excit­ing things you’re plan­ning for 2018

2018 is going to be excit­ing to watch. We have about 70 labs using Brain­base in beta right now but will offi­cial­ly open our plat­form to the com­mu­ni­ty this year, with help from the neu­ro­lab part­ner­ships we ini­ti­at­ed last year.  We are also plan­ning ways for the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion to get involved and con­tribute their brain activ­i­ty, which I think will be fun.

What are some key road­blocks ahead, and how are you plan­ning to address them?

The way sci­ence is struc­tured today does not encour­age data shar­ing. This is both cul­tur­al as well as dri­ven by the incen­tives of aca­d­e­m­ic career pro­gres­sion that place empha­sis on author­ship order and fast pub­li­ca­tion over good, clean data, which few peo­ple both­er to look at or eval­u­ate in peer review. There are also issues around IRB approvals, which have com­mon­ly opposed open data shar­ing, even when anonymized.  We need bet­ter poli­cies to bal­ance sci­en­tif­ic progress with pri­va­cy con­cerns.

We do hope to play a role in this debate by build­ing bet­ter ways to encour­age data shar­ing — for exam­ple we have tak­en anonymiza­tion very seri­ous­ly in how we han­dle data in our plat­form and have built-in anonymiza­tion tools. We are also build­ing in pub­lic shar­ing of data as part of our fund­ing agree­ment for our Neu­ro­lab part­ner­ship net­work.

If you could go back in time to, say, 5–10 years ago, what advice would you have liked to receive?

I would say you nev­er know how things will come togeth­er or what new oppor­tu­ni­ties will present them­selves, so just keep at the things that tru­ly inter­est you.

Final­ly, if I may, what do you do to stay sharp 🙂

I stay off social media almost entire­ly and also try hard not to get caught up with the dai­ly news cycle; this helps me get to more focused states where I can keep con­cen­tra­tion on long-form con­tent with greater depth. I also pay atten­tion to diet (no sug­ar), reg­u­lar exer­cise and med­i­ta­tion.

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Tara Thi­a­gara­jan is the Founder & Chief Sci­en­tist of Sapi­en Labs. Her inter­est lies in under­stand­ing large-scale human sys­tems and has worked on new ana­lyt­i­cal approach­es to brain sig­nals (LFP, ECoG and EEG) for over a decade. She has a BA in Math­e­mat­ics from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty, an MBA from the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment at North­west­ern, and a Ph.D. in Neu­ro­science from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. She is also an Advi­so­ry Group Mem­ber for Ashoka’s Change­mak­ers ini­tia­tive.

Thanks to her great pitch and answers dur­ing the 2017 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit (slid­edeck avail­able below), Sapi­en Labs was select­ed as the Top Brain­no­va­tion har­ness­ing Big Data.

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