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April 19, 2017

A look inside the budding battle between cyborg supply startups

by John_A

Liviu Babitz’s eyes well up when he mentions his young son. In a past life Babitz was forced to be stoic, in perpetual danger as he worked for a secretive human-rights group in corrupt countries. Today he’s a cyborg, standing in front of crowds to champion the cause of biohacking.

As CEO of startup Cyborg Nest, Babitz is among a new breed of hackers-cum-entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on putting technology into the human body. Their industry, biohacking, began as a hobby for a small group of tinkerers who implanted magnets into the flesh of their fingers and rice-sized radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips in their hands. It’s since grown to an only slightly larger community of enthusiasts who share experiments on forums and strive to push the body’s boundaries.

Babitz and others want to make biohacking more mainstream. They think artificial senses and implanted devices will be commonplace in society’s foreseeable future, and they’re jostling to get in on the ground floor of a billion-dollar industry before tech giants take over.

“This will be as profitable as any other tech industry out there,” Babitz told Digital Trends. “This is the future. Everybody is going to be a cyborg.”

From DIY to buy, buy, buy

If great tech companies begin in makeshift labs, most biohacking companies are off to a good start. Alex Smith, founder and sole-employee of Cyberise.me, runs his startup out of a converted double garage in Melbourne, Australia, where he keeps his assortment of equipment and packaging. Smith is a full-time computer security consultant who works on Cyberise in the little free time he has.

“I started building my own implants because the ones that were available weren’t as advanced as I’d wanted,” he said. “After I did the first two, people started to want to buy them from me. I decided to just start my own company to basically help fund my future research and pay for my hobby.”

In his booth at BDYHAX, Smith showed off his wares — chips used to access smart devices and fluorescent subdermal implants for purely aesthetic purposes. He’s among a close group of biohackers developing new devices, including payment implants and biomedical sensors for monitoring things like temperature and blood oxygen levels. He hopes to one day soon develop a neural interface that will allow him to wirelessly access the internet without having to touch his phone or computer. By then Smith hopes the biohacking industry will be booming and most people may have implants to unlock their front door, let them sense magnetic fields, or keep track of their vitals. Then he’ll be able to commit to Cyberise full-time.

This industry will be as profitable as any other tech industry out there.

“Right now I can count the number of people in the industry on one hand and the amount of money involved is in the tens of thousands of dollars range,” Smith said. “It’s very small. In the future — maybe ten or twenty years — it will be a multi-billion dollar industry. It will be like the computer industry or cosmetic medical industry. It will be huge. I don’t know exactly when but most people alive today will see that day.”

Amal Graafstra was sitting in a similar booth an aisle away, holding a thick syringe in his gloved right hand. With his left hand he pinched the skin between a customer’s thumb and index finger before inserting the syringe and plunging a rice-sized RFID chip into the pocket of flesh.

Will a rising tide lift all businesses?

Graafstra runs his own startup, Dangerous Things, out of his Seattle garage. Last year, there was a line of customers at his BDYHAX booth waiting to receive free devices. This year, Graafstra decided to charge the standard $50 for each chip and just a handful of attendees forked over the cash, though there’s still a crowd around eager to watch others undergo the quick procedure.

Graafstra and Smith sell practically the same products. “He is competition in the technical sense,” Smith said. “But I think it’s a good kind of competition. We drive each other to innovate and experiment.”

DT’s intrepid Cool Tech Editor Drew Prindle willingly submits himself for an RFID chip injection

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

However, where Smith has held on to his day job, Graafstra quit his to focus on Dangerous Things full-time. The bottom line is understandably more noticeable for him.

“It’s such a niche market that we’re literally competing for every sale,” Graafstra said.

Babitz echoes Smith’s sentiment that competition, particularly in an industry’s infancy, will only serve to increase interest and make for better products. Cyborg Nest sells a $425 silicon device called the North Sense, which is bolted to the chest by two titanium bars. Whenever a wearer faces north, the device evokes a brief vibration. In a panel discussion at BDYHAX, Babitz shared some of the unexpected consequences of gaining a new sense — such as when a vibration coincided with a goodbye to his son, and the memory of the moment was seared into his mind. In an interview with Digital Trends later on, he said he welcomes competition and encourages other startups to explore the field.

It’s such a niche market that we’re literally competing for every sale.

“I look forward to healthy competition from other companies to come in producing other artificial senses,” he said. “It will help everybody grow. They’ll have a marketing budget so they’ll expand and attract more clients who one day buy from us and another day buy from them.

“[Competition] gives you a mirror. It’s a very basic economics rule,” he added. “Say I have a tomato and I’m offering you a tomato. If you buy the tomato then I’ll have a shop. If you don’t buy the tomato then my tomato probably isn’t any good.”

Growing pains

A few BDYHAX attendees sported puck-sized implants in the back of their hands with LEDs that lit up in a star-like pattern when activated by a magnet. They’re strictly aesthetic implants called North Stars (not to be confused with the North Sense) and they’re the work of the Pittsburgh-based collective Grindhouse Wetware.

Launched as a think tank by Tim Cannon and Shawn Sarver around 2010, Grindhouse was incorporated in 2012 and, for the past five years, has been plugging away at experimental projects aimed at the experienced biohacker. Grindhouse created the Circadia, a device that collects biometric data and relays it to smartphones via Bluetooth. Another device called the Bottlenose let wearers feel far away objects and determine their distance. But, despite the company’s best efforts, the devices didn’t click with consumers as they’d hoped.

“For a while we were selling [the Bottlenose] as a kit but realized it was a little more advanced than people thought it was going to be,” Justin Worst, who manages Grindhouse’s business operations, said. “You had to have some hacking and programming background but we just kind of gave people all the parts to make their own and through a bunch of extra stuff to see what people would create. Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t realize that was the goal, so we discontinued it.”

Grindhouse had trouble commercializing North Star as well.

“Before we developed the device, we had a lot of people who said they wanted to buy them,” Worst said. “But once we made and put a price on them, a lot of people said they didn’t have the money or didn’t think it would cost so much.”

To be fair, at $350, the North Star is an expensive accessory. Only 15 people — many of them affiliated with Grindhouse — have implanted the device. None of Grindhouse’s members having given up their day jobs. Until the startup takes off, Worst’s bread and butter is in archaeology.

Can open source ethos survive capitalism?

Worst admits his company’s goal is to turn a profit but, like the other startups we spoke to, Grindhouse hopes to invest those funds into developing better devices. They also acknowledge the importance of patents in today’s market — even if trade secrets are at odds with the open source ethos the biohacking community was founded on. For Grindhouse’s part, they plan to follow the “Elon Musk plan” of patenting initial versions, only to open source schematics after the product’s second or third iteration.

“There’s definitely an open source mentality in the community,” said Dr. Kevin Warwick, a biohacking pioneer whose extensive work has earned him the moniker Captain Cyborg. “And the guys who are doing it still have that mentality. The market isn’t established enough that you can get into trouble over patent complaints at the present time.

“I think the patents are established with the future in mind but I don’t think you’re going to see someone in Pittsburgh taken to court because they’ve used very similar product to somebody in Seattle,” he added. “But that will all change when the big companies come in.”

These big companies are currently conspicuous in their absence, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t watching closely distance. Only time – and no shortage of regulatory hurdles — will tell if biohacking turns into a truly lucrative industry with devices offering biomedical monitoring, various artificial senses, and extended abilities. But you can bet that tech giants will be waiting to pounce and purchase any proven startups once it does.

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