The power of the brain

PAULA: CTO of Brain+ on collaboration between corporate and startup, the need for curiosity and on daring to fail: "You need to be able to fail, because that's the only way you will learn."

Q: Paula, you are the new Chief Technology Officer of Brain+, and not only are you a brain tech, mind tech enthusiast, but you also build robots in your free time. We'll talk more about robots in a minute, because that sounds fascinating. But you joined Brain+ from a larger company, right?

 I'm a computer scientist by background. For the past seven years, I worked for Lundbeck, a big pharma company here in Denmark, with 5000 employees. I found myself really motivated by the goals of the company, about bringing innovative treatments to people suffering from mental health disorders. Back when I started, digital health was not seen as a priority. But then people started seeing the opportunities of using digital health for remote assessment. When I started pushing for digital health, my initial role was to come as an external observer and tech nerd to say, hey, what about this technology? What about this wearable? And by the time I left in October 2021, the clinical teams were asking my department for input into what technologies and tools they could use. That was so, so amazing, and I am so proud of the company for growing and maturing on digital health.

Q: That is fantastic, and a huge change in attitude. And then you left for a startup?

First of all, I'm super happy with my decision. I think Brain+ is just an amazing, innovative company. Using digital technologies for intervention is something that I've been thinking about for a while now. Instead of a pharmacological intervention, you could get something on your mobile phone, that will actually make a change in your life and your health. I think that's so powerful! I believe in personalized medicine. We are all individuals with our own genetics and traits and surrounded by a unique environment that formed our personality, but also our body, our guts, our mind. And the amazing thing about the human mind, the human brain is that we do not understand it yet. And I'm a person that's very curious by nature, and I love challenges. So, working with brain health is just a perfect match.

Q: Talking about a perfect match. You've been on both sides of the equation, what do you see as the biggest roadblock for corporates and startups to be able to collaborate?

It is challenging, because the way they work can be very different. Bigger organizations tend to work in a traditional model, with a lot of specialized people in their own departments, and less work in cross-functional teams. When you're running a startup, you are like family, and you are able to share knowledge easier, without being impacted by the organizational structure. One thing I learned in Lundbeck is that you needed to be patient for things to happen. And that's for good reasons. There's a lot of evaluation and risk assessment, and the decisions are also impacted by who is at a table. Startups are able to take decisions faster, because everyone can be involved. Risk assessment can be done faster, so actions can be taken fast. Bringing the agile model in, and changing the mindset of traditional companies, I think that's an important step towards collaboration.

Q: And what about the startups - what's an ideal startup team like?

It's of course the people that make the company. For me, it's important to have fun at work, and to combine that fun with a greater goal. Of course, underneath this, you need to have highly skilled people. You can hire highly skilled people, but for a startup the cost of that can be challenging. The other way is to find some really curious, ambitious young people willing to put the effort into learning. And I think a combination of this might do a good match, because those people that have more expertise will be able to share their knowledge, and the younger employees can capture that knowledge quite fast. But everyone in the team needs to be aware that it's fine to fail.

"Failure is a way to learn. If you're doing something new, that by definition means that you do not know how it is to be done. You are going to explore and you are going to fail. Being afraid of that is not very productive."

Q: Talking about exploring new things, you have a fascinating hobby.

I have a super exciting hobby! I build physical objects that move and try to make them intelligent. I'm a computer scientist by background, so I didn't have much experience with building hardware. But five or six years ago I borrowed an Arduino starter kit, and I said, okay, let's see what we can do. I made an LED blink, a motor move, and it was just amazing. The realisation that even though I don't know much about hardware, there is this abstraction layer that I can use, and I can build things in the physical world! My ideas on what I could build have grown over time. I've done some home automation, and my current project is building a humanoid robot. I've been working on it in my free time for the past two years.

Q: That sounds amazing. How far have you come?

It's a work in progress. I'm on my second version, using a combination of 3D printed parts and metal parts for structure, exploring more complex mechanisms, inspired by what other people are doing out there. I can move the torso, and I can lift the arms, but there's still a problem with that because of the weight. In the forearms, I have different motors, and I have sensors all over the fingers. I've also played a bit and added extra features compared to the human body, like I decided to put an electromagnet in one of the palms. And of course, I have the head of the robot, built from 3D components and I think around 20 different motors, plus a bunch of sensors.

Q: Wow, that is quite the project. When you talk about that, it's obvious that it's not just the building itself, but it's you entering all of these new domains, learning from others, that interests you. In your work, do you find the same value in talking to other health tech startups? Other experts?

Definitely! I'm so curious about everything, also in my work. I love interacting with other people and learning from them. I think it's so important that we share our experiences, including our failures. It's important to show younger startups as well, it's a lot of hard work and exploration, a lot of hours and days and a lot of strategizing and delivering, going out in the world and being open to feedback, even if negative. But exactly those help you adapt, so you have better chances of succeeding. And so having these stories being told, and having these communities where you can share, it's super, super important for us.

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