Learning never ends. It's fundamental to how we improve our respective crafts, expand our understanding of the world, and grow as individuals.
An emerging technique aimed to accelerate learning is transcranial direct current stimulation, which stimulates brain cells via tiny doses of electricity. Enter Halo Neuroscience, a company that’s built a TDCS headset called Halo Sport. Dr. Daniel Chao, Halo’s CEO, joins the podcast to discuss the technology powering Halo Sport and the evidence supporting it.
Dr. Dan Chao, thanks for coming into our office.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
So, we've crossed paths multiple times. I think we've become good friends over the last couple years.
I would call you a good friend.
Yeah. Just a number of conferences, in the broad human performance space. We work with a lot of the same customers and elite athletics, Department of Defense, but I never really got to hear your full story and background. I know you're a medical doctor, you have a background in neuroscience, you actually were involved with the medical device company around brain and neuroscience. So, I'm interested to hear about your medical training and your science training. How it lead you up to being in the human performance space with Halo Neuroscience.
I was a biochemistry major in college. After that experience, I took two years off between undergrad and grad school to work at a lab at UCSF. I was working with this guy, I just lucked into this job, this guy David Bredt: B. R. E. D as in David, T as in Tom, I would encourage your listeners to look this guy up. So, at the time, he was the youngest tenure track Professor ever hired by UCSF. He came straight out of an MD-PhD from Johns Hopkins. And he did some groundbreaking work in this field of looking at neurotransmitters, specifically nitric oxide, which I think you've talked about in your work here at HVMN. So, he was the fourth most cited author in the world at the time. He's 29 years old. During my two years with them, we published two papers in Cell which is the most-
It's a top journal.
Yeah, and one of those papers was one of the most cited papers in all of science that year. A lot of that had to do with the role of nitric oxide in this disease called muscular dystrophy, which is a male-only disease: only boys get it, and it's universally fatal. That whole course of science where we just use basic science, just like working our ass off in a lab, making a discovery that could affect a population of people, really changed my life. I guess, many scientists dream of doing this, but here I was 22 years old, and we did it. And now, there's a drug based on those discoveries that are helping people with Muscular Dystrophy double their lifespan. I just thought to myself, like, "I want to rinse and repeat." This thing of doing science to help people, populations of people, not one by one, but populations of people in one fell swoop with a discovery, as many times as I can.
So, scaling up medicine beyond just like a clinician, just how do we make technology to help people?
Yes. So, he was an MD-PhD. And I said, "I just want to be Dave." So, for your listeners who don't know, there's this opportunity where you can get both degrees in about seven or eight years, and people who graduate from these programs tend to be scientists, they tend to not practice medicine, they have an MD, but they tend to not practice clinical medicine. Got into Stanford, super thankful for that and started on this long journey of getting both degrees. And during that time, two things happened: One was, I started to realize that a chemical approach to the brain was wrong. So, I'm this biochemist and I'm really interested in drug discovery, and basically drugging the brain with chemicals. And I realized that it's just too much to ask for a little molecule that you swallow by mouth to make it to the brain to go to all the right places at just the right time for it to do its job. And for most drugs related to the brain, you see very matter of fact, in common sense problems with this whole approach, right? There's a lot of friendly fire across the rest of the body, like the liver gets blasted, the kidney gets blasted, all these other vital organs blasted unnecessarily.
And there's a blood-brain barrier, right? So, when people talk about nootropics, a lot of the people will say, like, "Hey, these compounds don't actually cross the blood-brain barrier, how are you actually getting these compounds where you're supposed to be?"
100% correct. So, the brain has this privileged circulation. Molecules need to pass the blood-brain barrier to interface with the brain, and that's appropriate because we know the brain is such an important sensitive organ, we should guard it's circulation. So, blood-brain barrier does this. So, we're asking a little drug to go around the whole body, and then get through the blood-brain barrier, so, that it can interact with the brain. But, you know, the brain is like chemically relatively homogeneous. Like, there's these receptors, and neurotransmitters and they do certain things, but they're, kind of, all over the place. And this is how we drug the brain. We just hope that it sticks to the right place when like, chemically, it's more homogeneous than we would want. I still remember taking these pharmacology classes in medical school that while drugs work amazing for the rest of the body, like drugs is a miracle of modern medicine really, drugs for the brain are very poor, perhaps as bad as it gets. It's down there with cancer drugs.
I would say it's just also shown in business, right? All the big pharma companies have, kind of, shut down their neurological programs. I don't think it's just like, you seeing it from the student perspective.
These programs are being shut down.
There's less drug discovery in brain disorders, and is really the very brave that are still doing it. But some of these drugs are still like blockbuster drugs. I mean, you know, like the whole SSRI category, you know, the Prozac family of drugs. Huge. Yeah. The anti psychotic category of drugs, still multi billion dollar drugs for Eli Lilly and other pharma companies that are making drugs. And yet, they kind of suck. So, you know, you're a Stanford grad, Stanford encourages you to take a step back and rethink a completely different approach. And so, I did that, and I was thinking like, "What if we built a physical device like, a neurostimulator for the brain?" A physical device has some really key advantages over a drug. A physical device, we can dribble the electricity exactly where we want, there by avoiding the rest of the body, the rest of the brain, leaving it alone. AlSo, with the physical device, there's a circuit, we connect it to a circuit, we can turn it on and off like a light bulb at our disposal. With a drug, there's no antidote that you can just turn it off, right?
If you're having a bad day with side effects, you can't turn off the drug. So, then I was like, "Wow, what if we use electricity as medicine?" So, what started as a concept, led to my first company. I wasn't a founder there, I was a single digit employee at this company called NeuroPace. So, I joined a team where the idea is like, "What if we use electricity to treat seizure disorder?" So, seizure disorders, epilepsy. And drugs for epilepsy are notoriously bad. One third don't work at all. You would rather have epilepsy than the side effects of the drugs. So, that's another one third where it doesn't work, and then one third it works okay. So, we developed, think of it as like a pacemaker for the brain, it's this medical implant where electrodes go into the brain, and there's this onboard computer that's listening to the brain only delivering electricity when the brain's about to have a seizure.
Is this under the skull? Is it over the skull? Is it implanted?
We take away a piece of skull, that is the same size and shape as this pacemaker thing, and we drop the hardware into that hole we just made. Turns out that's not that big of a deal. You know, we thought it was a big deal, but then we talked to neurosurgeons and they were like, "No, this is child's play." Putting the electrodes in the brain, that's the hard part. So, yeah, we developed this device and it was a big project. It was 10 years of my life, we raised 250 million dollars before one penny of revenue was generated. Can you believe that?
I mean, in Silicon Valley, yes I can. I mean, that's quite impressive.
As an entrepreneur, raising 250 million dollars before ... I mean, that's just selling the promise, year over year, raise over raise. I think we're on series H by the time I left, and we had FDA approval and we're selling products. So, it's out there in clinical practice, helping thousands of people with epilepsy in a way that I don't think the world could have imagined before we got there. So, yeah, long arduous, very difficult entrepreneurial experience. Learned a ton. Super thankful for the outcome, and that, again, we're able to help a population of people with a piece of technology. So, 1% of the world has epilepsy, many of us think that's a small disease, but it's actually a highly prevalent disease.
That's surprising, I didn't-
Yeah that's material right?
Yeah, it's super material. That's 600, 700 million people.
Yeah, yeah, in the United States it's a good 3 million people that have epilepsy. It was alSo, awesome to see other companies doing similar things with neurostimulation. So, right now, there's neurostimulators for chronic pain: they stimulate the spinal cord, there's neurostimulators for Parkinson's disease: they stimulate these nuclei in the thalamus and the basal ganglia. There's a neurostimulator for incontinence: it controls the nerve that closes the sphincter of the bladder. So, these are all multi hundred million dollar companies at its low end.
Right. And these are all FDA medical devices with trials, and doctors prescribe and ... I don't know install or implant these devices into patients.
And multi 10s of thousands of dollars for one unit.
Insurance covers that these are all completely within the healthcare system.
For sure. There's codes like reimbursement codes and all that stuff for these products. But many of your listeners may have never heard of this cottage industry that's actually quite big. And that's because it's only the very ill can benefit from this technology. Like who would assume the surgery and the hardware implanted unless you are like pretty desperate, like you tried everything and you have pretty severe disease, and you've come to like, "What's left?" Well, there's this medical and plan, and so you go for it. There is one side of this whole experience that was really positive, it's like, "Wow, new thing for this really needy patient population." But there is this other thing that's like, "Shit. Only a small percentage of these people will actually benefit from it." Because, there's another percentage of these people that are just freaked out by the medical implant. Yeah sometimes as a technologist, you just assume that if you build it good enough, people will just do it. But that only goes to a certain point. And I think brain stimulation, like, a brain implant crosses that line for a lot of people. So, then I was thinking like, "How can we make this even better?" I've seen it with my own eyes that this can work.
That electricity could be used as medicine to augment humanity, right? In this case, treating disease in other cases like, healthy people enhancing their performance. But how can we make this so that is more accessible? And the only way to do that is to make it a wearable. You cannot ... like, "Oh, it's cool, let's just ..."
I'm a pretty skeptical biohacker so it'll be hard to convince me to like, "Okay, let's do some brain surgery, crack open your skull and we'll put in an electrode."
Right? If Geoff Whoo is not ready for it, the world is probably not ready for it. So, what are so called non-invasive techniques to modulate neural activity, with neuro stimulation, with electric fields? And what we found at the time, So, this goes back a while like 10 years ago, there was about 500 papers published on this topic, today there's about 4,000 papers. So, the field's really grown since we first looked at it, and we were really impressed with those early papers. So, much so, that we started tinkering, building our own very rudimentary devices: like biohacking stuff, right? In literally our garage and living room: testing it ourselves, and bringing in our friends, testing it on them, replicating other people's work in our own makeshift lab. And that gave us confidence in the technology. When we could replicate other people's work, we're like, "This thing has some legs." So, that gave us the courage to write up a business plan, raise some money-
Do you have electrical engineering background to start building a little own tDCS devices?
My co-founder does, not me. But yeah, my co-founder's amazing engineer. He's the CTO of the company, and yeah, he basically hand built a simple tDCS device, and we went to work on ourselves, and we read papers and just replicated other people's protocols, and we're able to generate more or less their result. And So, that-
There's no mean feat in science right now, where I think some people said there's a crisis in science where a lot of these things aren't replicable, right? A lot of psychology experiments that we all very well know and hear about, like the Stanford marshmallow experiment, apparently has been debunked. So, it is non-trivial to say that you can replicate.
Thank you for saying that because there's a lot of ... like we say, "Oh, published literature, peer reviewed." A lot of that stuff is still garbage. Like a lot of that could be just like a straight up lie. Even if it's peer reviewed. I mean, the peer review process helps, but it's like our justice system. It's not absolute. And so, for me ... and I would encourage your listeners to really challenge even what's peer reviewed in a makeshift study on themselves or with their friends to just like prove it out for themselves. It was important for us. For me, and for any entrepreneur, when you choose to found a company, you burn the bridge behind you, right? You're raising money, you're risking everything. Like for me, my scientific credibility, which took a lifetime to build, I'm putting on the line to found this company around this core technology that is called tDCS.
So, tDCS, for the folks that aren't aware of the acronym. What is it? What are the basic principles? What are the physics and the physiology behind this methodology.
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, So, tDCS. tDCS for those who don't have electrical engineering background, it just involves putting a direct current running across your scalp: that's [DC 00:15:00]. So, the frequency is zero. A lot of folks who know things about brain stimulation, it's like, "Oh, well, what's the frequency?" There's no frequency. It's just one big, long DC pulse. And this DC pulse, in our cases is 20 minutes, creates this electric field that if it's of a certain strength, can penetrate the skull and interact with the cortex. So, there's a limit how deep it can penetrate. So, basically, think about it as just being strong enough to get through the skull and interacting with just mere millimeters of depth into the cortex.
Because that was going to be one of my follow up questions, actually, So, I'm glad we're diving into some of the questions, right? If you were a devil's advocate, okay, skull's thick, are you actually, without implanting electrode into the brain itself, are you actually getting enough of a field to penetrate the skull? So, it sounds like you have data that says that it does.
So, there's this contrary view, which you just asked about, it's like, "Well, what are we talking about?" Like, in our case, it's like 2.2 milliamps. That's at its max. Is that enough of electric field to get through the skull? That's millimeters thick of bone? Turns out that it is. We can model this, but modeling is just modeling. What's more important is that you can show some sort of physiology change. So, how could we measure this empirically? Okay, So, let's pick on motor cortex, because it's just a nice system because there's an output that is movement. So, you can put this TMS coil: TMS coil is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and you could use this to fire a magnetic pulse across the skull, strong enough that you can trigger muscle contraction. Okay so, you can use this as an [assay 00:16:37], as an experimental system, just like, "Okay, let's fire a magnetic pulse just strong enough to trigger a muscle contraction in your thumb," and for whatever reason they pick on extensor pollicis longus-
So, you can just raise your thumb.
Exactly. So, you go like this. And you can put a little sensor here to measure how strong that muscle contraction was. So, the smallest amount of magnetic stimulation to trigger a muscle contraction like, this is your system. Now, what if we did things to manipulate the system? What if we made you stay up all night? Did the same thing. What happens to this muscle contraction? What if we gave you different drugs like an antidepressant or an ADHD drug or whatever? You can manipulate the system with different [insult CS 00:17:23] system. Now, what if you did tDCS? So, turns out that if you do tDCS, the magnetic pulse is going like this and your thumb is going like this: like a small twitch. After tDCS, the same magnetic pulse, this is what happens: a much larger muscle contraction, right? So, somehow the tDCS is facilitating the system, right? It's making it ... it's like this tissue is more excitable, So, that a given amount of impulse, keep the impulse the same, is triggering a bigger muscle contraction. This was the fundamental foundational work by these two German scientists that came up with this in like 2003-2004 timeframe. And from this experiment gave birth to the modern field of tDCS.
So, basically you're saying from a mathematical model in terms of the theoretical depth of penetration, and then you're actually running an assessement to see if we're neuropriming potentiates an action and it looks like the data is there that yes, you can actually manipulate.
Yeah, and there's a dose response curve and there's everything about it, and this is one more thing that's interesting. So, 20 minutes of tDCS, you take away the tDCS electrode, this effect is still there. So, there's this afterglow effect that you don't need the tDCS electrode to be there for this effect to happen. So, that was also, this magical result that these two German scientists developed, it's like, "Holy shit." So, not only do we get this effect while the tDCS is on, but there's this afterglow that last for about an hour.
Right. I think getting into the neuroscience a little bit, I think which is interesting for our audience. So, the electric field potentiates the neuro potential this firing mechanism of neurons. How does that exactly work? What is the mechanism there? Obviously we don't necessarily need to do a masterclass PhD level thesis on it but at a high level, what is exactly going on there that allows someone to be in this prime state where you can potentiate action?
I'll say it the neuroscience way, and then will back off and talk more conceptually. So, for neurons, their whole life, their whole point in being in our body is the fire action potentials. Action potentials, propagate signals across our brain through different circuits and that does everything for us: It encodes learning and memory, it encodes movement, it encodes emotions, it trigger sleep, everything in the brain is about firing action potentials for our benefit. Now, the fundamental event of an action potential, like how does an action potential get triggered? So, it's when the neuron's resting membrane potential, hits what's called the threshold potential. So, the neurons at rest, if the resting member potential, like lifts up to this threshold potential, this magic happens ... exactly, this exponential thing happens, where it fires it's action potential. So, think of firing an action potential, like you doing a pull up. So, you're hanging up on a pull up bar, and you're trying to get your chin above this bar, and once you do, this magical thing happens. A lot biological systems are triggered in this way where there's thresholds, and once a threshold that hits, this cascade of events happens.
So, all these signals go into the neuron to essentially charge it up enough until it fires?
Exactly. So, if there's enough neural input, so, that this resting membrane potential, like are you lifting up to get above this pull up bar is hit, than this magic happens of triggering an action potential.
But if you don't actually trigger there's no action potential. So, it's, kind of, like a binary switch. It's like all or nothing.
If it's sub threshold, it might as well nothing would have happened. So, what tDCS does to a neuron, is if you saw me struggling to do a pull up, and you're like, "I know this dude, I'll give them some help." And you give me 20 pounds of assistance. Well, okay, now I've got some help, I can do a pull up now. So, we're like that 20 pounds of assistance to a neuron, we're just lifting the resting membrane potential slightly, So, that it's closer to the threshold potential. So, that in and of itself is not that interesting. It gets interesting when you pair that with training, right?
Why would that even be good? Now, it sounds like we're going to have to talk about why that would be good.
Yeah, So, like for you the 20 pounds of assistance, you can sit there and give me 20 pounds of assistance, but there's like another 160 pounds that ... it's like, "Listen, I know this guy, but I'm not going to do everything for him," It's the same thing with tDCS and the brain. So, we can do some of the work, but the user needs to do the rest of the work. And that's where the magic happens. So, with Halo Sport, we're stimulating the motor cortex. And the motor cortex is responsible, amongst other brain regions, for movement. It's a critical movement center in the brain. So, what we want people to do is stimulate the motor cortex and then go train movement. If you don't train movement, then you just wasted a perfectly good tDCS session. Right? So, we want you to train or to use Halo Sport for 20 minutes, and then for the next hour, we want you to train movement.
Because the threshold potential's lower, so, every time that you actually train the movement the action potential fires more easily, and that's going to basically train your movement patterns better. It's a crappy way of saying it, probably.
Yeah. So, let's take it the next step. So, a population of neurons, say in this case the motor cortex, is now more excitable, and now you're training, right? So, what happens there that makes you better at movement? So, there's this old neuroscience saying that neurons that fire together wire together. A Nobel prize was awarded for this very simple saying. So, neurons firing, and synchrony, is this really important event that our neurons have adapted to realize, it's like, "Whoa, me and you, we just fired at exactly the same time that was special, let's grow closer to each other." So, we strengthen our synaptic connections with each other. And this is the whole underpinning of learning and memory, like neurons that fire together, wire together. This wiring together is a literal, physical transformation of the way these two neurons are interacting with each other. They grow towards each other, they strengthen those synapses with each other physically.
So, the axons, like the little dendrites actually get closer together?
Close together, and the synapses grow fatter. You could stick them under an electron microscope, and you could see it. This is a computer chip that can morph to your benefit. At your piece of silicon from Intel, that's a static computer chip. Imagine if this thing can morph to you, whichever way you want to teach it, right? That's our brain, that's why it's so magical. So, we're just trying to hasten this process, right? We're just curating this population of neurons, in this case the motor cortex, combining it with movement, So that we can probabilistically, statistically increase the likelihood of two neurons firing and synchrony, right? And then if we do that, then learning happens at an accelerated rate. That's our whole value proposition.
Which is pretty compelling, right? So, basically use this electrical potential to hasten learning, which is almost like a free lunch which is awesome. I think one thing that is interesting for me is that the audio headset, the areas of your electrodes where it hits the motor cortex, it seems almost convenient. The top area of your brain is exactly where like a headset would sit. I mean, if the motor cortex where somewhere else, or if there's some other regions of brain were there, I mean, how would you think about that? Did it happen to be a happy coincidence? Because the motor cortex was where a headset would set. If the visual cortex was there, for example, would Halo Sport be like, Halo seeing things better? Curious to here about, how you-
Oh man. I love this question because for once in my life, professionally I got lucky. We love the motor cortex, one because the data's so strong. There's a lot in the Polish literature and we also, did a lot of work with our own research to prove it out. And then we just thought, "Boy, this is a really new technology for the world. People are going to call bullshit on us."
It's a good claim. Anything that sounds like good-
Too good to be true...
Right? And people should challenge it. The motor system is one of these areas where people can prove it to themselves. I mean, you're probably feeling this too with HVMN, right? Take this thing, freaking put yourself on a bike, and do an FTP test. You can see it for yourself that this thing is working. And the motor system is like this beautiful thing that is quantitative, you can put numbers against it, and I can show that you can jump higher if you train with Halo Sport. Partly It was a byproduct of how easy it is to measure the motor system, and the data that lead us towards movement training first, and then we're like, "Whoa, the motor cortex sits like a horseshoe ear to ear: Headphones. This is awesome, right? Let's build it into a set of headphones." The hardware looks like a set of headphones for those that are watching on video. And these things are the electrodes, So, these things is where the electric field is created.
What if you wasn't sitting on properly? If it moves? How do you assuage those concerns? What if I put it on a different part of my brain, is that going to trigger something that I want? Don't want? I don't know the regions of the brain perfectly, what if I put this in the back of my head? The front of my head? Am I stimulating other parts that ... can I learn faster or something? Like trigger other regions?
Let's talk about folks that are trying to do the right thing but just grew up a little bit because you described some other things where people are purposely doing something different. So, if you put this on like a regular set of headphones there are some instructions for use. Like, if you're standing up straight, the headset should be vertical. Now, for whatever reason, like younger folks, just for style reasons, like to kick it back a little bit. So, that's not hitting motor cortex.
You're doing it wrong?
You're doing it wrong.
What are you hitting? What's behind the motor cortex?
So, yeah, you could be hitting language center, you could be hitting something other than motor cortex. So, as long as you put it on, such that it's more or less vertical, we're hitting motor cortex. So, we've designed these electrodes to be about a centimeter too wide. So, if you're a centimeter off, we got you covered. If you're beyond that, then maybe we don't have all of the motor cortex covered, but we've got probably most of it. Maybe some of your audience is thinking like, "Well, it's a centimeter too wide, that means there are some friendly fire. Some of its neighbors are being hit." So, we know that. So, some primary sensory cortex is being hit, some supplementary motor cortex is getting hit. If anything, we think this might help us a little bit, but because it's the coincidence of where you stimulate it, and what you're training, right? Like, those are the two things that need to happen, for the simulation to work. Now, let's say someone didn't go through the app, and they've got it tilted way too far back, So, they're not hitting motor cortex at all. So, the worst that could happen is that you're just wasting your time. So, you're not getting any of the lift in learning that you would have had you hit motor cortex.
So, if you're hitting language cortex, you're not training language or doing exercise, all that priming doesn't do anything, because you're not even firing in that region anyways.
Right. So, generally when you're working out, you're not talking that much. So, you're not exercising your language capabilities. So, yeah, the worst that could happen is just you're wasting your time, you wasted a perfectly good neural stimulation session. So, what if you went off the map, right? And you're like, "Hey, I know what this thing is doing, what if I put this over visual cortex, or I put it over prefrontal cortex or whatever." And we know people do this, and we love these people. I think it's awesome. It's like, this is a brain stimulator, right? And it doesn't, necessarily need to wear it over motor cortex, you could tilt it forward, tilt it backwards. I would just ask those people to make sure they get their neuroanatomy right. Headphones are really ideally set up for hitting the top of you're head. And if you want to do visual cortex, it's not optimized for that, but you can definitely hit visual cortex, and there's data that shows that you can enhance visual acuity-
Isn't that interesting?
I need that because I'm wearing contacts.
So, yeah, like contacts and everything else, in corrective surgery is about changing the sensor or the lens. Yeah, but it turns out that, it's just like cell phones these days, the lens often stays the same but the processor gets better. And that's how we take better photos, it's just the computational processing gets better. Turns out you can do the same thing with vision.
So, not to digress, but yeah-
Well, I think it's interesting, I mean, I think that's like applicable to some people, I think, obviously, this is designed for motor cortex and improving sport performance and performance in that aspect, but it's interesting to see like, if you want to take this off the road, off the paved road, where could you go? Right? And say, "Okay." But end the day, you have what sounds like a world class tDCS device designed for motor cortex, but if you want to take it well that could be interesting for experimental folks, right?
What are some of the craziest stories you've heard personally, given your customers? I know obviously, you have great case studies with the American ski team, other professional athletes. We can talk about the sports indications, but can you just share about the more wacky use cases? I know that I've seen some of your testimonials with people playing instruments, they feel like they're learning faster when they're playing piano for example, any people try to use this for memory exercises? Memory competitions?
I would say the core number one in terms of volume of data alongside motor cortex is this part of the brain in your prefrontal cortex called the DLPFC. So, Dorsal Lateral Prefrontal Cortex. So, for your audience, imagine the lateral aspects of your eyes like take that up to your hairline, that's where it sits. And this part of the brain is important for cognitive control. So, think of focus attention, vigilance all of these things are byproducts of cognitive control. Cognitive control is thinking about the things that you want to think about while pushing out all the distractors. People talk about flow states. Flow states, to me is defined as a long run of cognitive control, right? Where the world could be falling around you and distractors everywhere, but you're in the state where you're like, "I'm thinking about this one thing and it's so, fluid," right? A long run of cognitive control begets enhanced memory. Like whatever you're studying, will just stick to your brain. I don't know if you've had these epic study sessions-
I think, we all wish we could always be in flow, right? I think we've all probably in our lives, at some point, have gotten done at some activity, done something we're like, "Wow. time is flying by."
Yeah. And things are just clicking, right? Like you're on fire for a meeting or there's a study session where just everything goes in. So, there are people that use Halo Sport tilted forward and granted, it looks a little goofy.
How much forward? Like this?
Yeah. So, basically right at your hairline.
Right? And they want to turn on always the left DLPFC. So, in that case, they would turn on the right hand. So, there's three menu ... you know this because you're a Halo Sport user.
There's the three panels that you can turn on and off.
Yeah, that's right. And, you know, we make it easier for our customers, you just pick the body part. But if you pick the body part of the right hand, that means the left electrode is the active one. That's the business end. So, it's pretty awesome.
I gotta try that. I have not tried it that way. So, I'm a Halo Sport, I guess version one customer. What trigged me to try it, this is probably a little bit over a year and a half ago, was at a charity boxing match, I needed to train for my charity boxing match. Long story. A friend, his name is [Nick Gabe 00:34:12], and I decided to-
To box each other?
We were talking about the Mayweather, McGregor fight, all right, that was, I think, during the fall of 2017. We're like, "All right, this sounds kind of fun. Let's just do something crazy." He wanted to like train for something. I was like, "Hey, maybe let's plan a little charity thing." And then we just trained hardcore for like three months and just punched the crap out of each other. Which is fine.
Are you still friends?
Yeah, we're great friends. I mean, I think it's a funny experience. You don't really share with a lot of people. I think in one of the conversation we've had about it, it's just ... you never get to that kind of intensity in a normal life. You just see someone trying to kill you, I was trying to kill him, I was legit trying to kill him, and you could see it in his eyes, he was legit trying to kill me.
You just don't normally get to that kind of intensity in every day civilization, which is probably a good thing, but it allowed me to see that side of humanity. So, that's what got me into it like, all right, I'm going to get every single advantage I can have. I think one thing that stuck with me, that I think we had talked about in the previous conversation that, you know, sport is essentially a game of getting advantage of your opponents, that's why you train, that's why better nutrition, that's where you have little proprietary secret or tactics or strategies. And I saw this as an interesting way to tap into that. But yes, I'm curious here about the upgrade to version two. I know that this is on pre sales now, and it'll be released on the spring. What were the big improvements here? What have you learned with version one to go into two?
Yeah, I think version one users like yourself will really appreciate this, and then for everybody else they'll just take it for granted. You remember those three electrodes or three primers?
Just from an outside perspective, it looks super clean, looks less bulky.
So, now it's one primer strip. So, just less stuff to manage. The foam on the nibs, is just a different foam chemistry that sucks up water a lot better. Our biggest complaint was that it was hard to get good scalp contact, and we pretty much solved that, we understood that it was just that the foam wasn't getting wet enough. Sounds trivial but it ended up being somewhat big problem we had to fix it.
And the water is needed to pass current?
Correct that's necessary. We can't cheat physics. And then we got a lot of feedback that our customers were using the headset as their primary audio headphones. And for us Helo Sport 1, the audio was kind of an afterthought. We just throw in some drivers out the last moment.
And it was wired right?
And it was wired. So, with this one we did a proper acoustic engineering process like tuned everything, and now it's wireless, and the sound quality rivals Bose and GBL, kicks the shit out of Beats.
This is where you will sit at the desk, when you listen to music.
Yeah, it can be. Yeah, we understand that a lot of folks can't afford both over the ear headphones, and a neurostimulator, so, of course, we want people to buy this for the neurostimulation first and foremost, but it can actually double as your nice over the ear wireless headphones now.
I know it's really not designed to wear this while you're doing an actual training. So, you get 20 minute priming session beforehand, then an hour of extra exercise. But, I think, maybe a lot of people just start doing some sort of warm ups and obviously some sort of wiredness for audio is not an ideal setup.
Yeah, thanks a lot Apple. Way to ditch the cord. But no, I think it's pushing the world in the right direction. If we can just go wireless for everything. Oh, I should mention that the price came down. So, the old product was 749. The new product is 399. We're just making them in higher volumes to say, so we can negotiate volume discounts and this kind of things.
That's super cool. So, going back to the sports side, what are some of the big wins? I know there's some case studies you had with American USA ski teams, I know you work with a lot of cyclists, I know you've done work with the US government with the military side, what are some of the key anecdotes on that side of the house? We kind of jumped around talking about the off-label use cases. But I want to hear about the design use cases and some of the wins and stories there.
They cross actually a pretty wide swath of, who we call, movement specialist. So, it could be on one side power lifters where we've got a fair number of power lifting world records. Our athletes have set power lifting world records. The complete opposite end of the spectrum is like a violinist. So, not with the creative or emotional side of producing music, but the purely mechanical side of putting your finger on the right place on the string so that it produces the right sound: the mechanics of learning that skill. So, like, what's the common thread between these two people?
Yeah. Motor cortex is that they practice this movement over and over and over again, begging their brain to commit it to memory and it takes forever, right? It takes millions of reps to get it right. What if we can accelerate that process with neurostimulation? It turns out that we can. It's been fun talking to people about what makes an elite athlete? How can we augment human capabilities? So that we can get more out of our bodies, and I think for athletes it's a race against time. Biologically we are going to start breaking down so that you're not in your physical prime at some point.
So it's about getting as much motor learning as you can while you're still in your prime. So, I would argue that the best athletes are the fastest learners. Like Steph Curry, not a physical specimen, right? Many people are as tolerant as big as Steph Curry, and yet he is the best basketball player of a generation. And I would argue ... and people talk about "Oh, he practices a lot." And he does, a lot of people practice a lot, maybe even more and they're not Steph. So, what is it about Steph? Right? Like Steph learns faster with the same number of reps, his brain gets more out of it.
So, in this arms race, how can we catch up to Steph, right. How can we figure out a way so that we can get more out of our reps? Because let's face it, training hard and long is kind of celebrated in culture. I think we should question why we train so much. Taking a step back, why does it take so many three pointers to get even like a fraction as good as Steph? And that's just because we're begging our brain to learn this movement pattern, and be more consistent in executing this movement pattern. Or anything in life, like learning a foreign language, it's like, "Please brain, I'm going to do Duolingo again. Please, I'm begging you to memorize these words and these sentence structures, so that I could use it when I go to LA." I think we all envy really young people and how quickly they can learn because their brain is hyper plastic and it's so awesome to be young, and just to have everything stick. Like watching young people pick up a foreign language literally within months, they're semi-fluid. While an adult it takes, I don't know, years before you can get half as good as them.
I guess there's a trade off right? The plasticity is valuable when you're young to learn new skills, but I guess when you're older you're more specialized, and the existing pathways are just more static. So, it's that trade off of youthful blank slate like, okay at this point, when you're 30, 40, 50, you have a specialized in some pathways that your neurons are used to be firing in and they're going to be more efficient ...
Yeah. But let me ask you this?
... and how you get the best of both worlds is kind of like the question, right?
Are we specialized because we can't learn something new? Are we specialize because we have to be specialized?
I don't think it's thoughtful, I think it's just our civilization and environment that's trained us to be specialized in some sort of arbitrary set of things.
I feel like at some point in age you're differentiated career wise, right? Like "Oh, Dan Chao is a neurostimulation guy". And maybe we've become to think this way because well, Dan can't learn things fast enough to do something different. Like, I can't apply for a marketing job in some other industry.
Yeah, I'm not gonna be professional musician now.
Right, because I just have no faith in this guy that he can't learn it fast enough, but with neurostimulation I would want to just requestion all of that.
Yeah, can you change that paradigm.
Can we change that paradigm? Like, can we all be faster learners? And if we could be faster learners, we're starting with movement, let's just have some fun. What if we could all be faster learners so that we can pick up a second language faster? And we could have people learning Arabic so that we could have better more diplomats with the Middle East: wouldn't that be awesome? Or it could be anything in life, think about life dreams that you had as a kid that maybe you gave up on because you're just frustrated with yourself that you can't learn it fast enough.
Yeah. I'm also just thinking from a therapeutic side for PTSD, which is something that comes top of mind to me, a lot of the theories of why a PTSD is at some of these memories are so ingrained in neuron firing pathways that they're just over simulator, over imprinted. Can you use something like neurostimulation to retrain that some of those pathways so they are not just stressed out?
Totally, forgetting is learning, that's neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, we've been talking about the formation of new neural connections, but it's also the destruction of ones that you don't want anymore.
Right, looking out 5, 10 year dream of what Halo could become is that the broader statements like "Hey we want to enable people to learn faster."
I think both of our companies. I see like we're human performance companies. We're thinking of ways of augmenting human capability. So, like right now it's about movement, it's about healthy people, augmenting their movement capabilities, movement learning, but I see this as potentially a drug alternative on the disease side, like folks that are suffering from some sort of psychiatric or neurologic condition and they don't really like their drug, but it's the best that they're out there. There should be some sort of counterweight against that, there should be another option, and I think that other option could be using neurostimulation. So, that's the doctor side of me, I see at some point Halo being both a consumer and a medical company.
Yeah, I mean, I think, that's the future. I'm sure when journalists ask what do you think health care? How does biohacking tie in with healthcare and all of that? I don't think anyone would say that the existing health care system is working necessarily and I think a lot of it will have to be lifestyle driven or individual driven. There has to be somewhat personalized yourself. I don't think we expect that an overworked doctor that is working in this is very cumbersome health care insurance system is going to necessarily know and be able to care as much frankly ...
I agree like we don't-
... but you yourself care about yourself.
Necessarily need to wait for the powers that be to offer products to us. I agree there should be individualization or just taking matters into your own hands, right? One should have a thoughtful approach, like a data driven approach, but to wait for big pharma companies and the FDA to get around to something.
It takes a while, but I think the process is there for a reason, but I think it's also that most things are decentralized. I think the internet was great for decentralizing information, I think you could make the argument that cryptocurrency or decentralizing financial institutions, and I would say we in the human performance or biohacking spaces are trying to decentralized some of the ivory tower knowledge in the medical space. How can rationable, educated people that are looking to read the same PubMed papers, the same published papers, interpret them and apply that possibly to their own use cases or own educations. One last thing before I forget, I know that you have a generous special offer for the HVMN podcast listeners.
Yeah, so Halo Sport 2 is on presale right now, for 100 bucks off the retail price, so it's 299 for a pre sale, will ship in April. We'd love to offer your listeners a special code where they can get another 20 bucks off.
279, code is HVMN.
That's a good deal. I mean, you get like a high quality audio device plus you get some neurostimulation on the site. I think it's a very fascinating conversation behind the physics and the physiology behind tDCS and what you're doing with Halo. I think it's super helpful conversation to demystify what's something that could sound a little bit too good to be true, but looks like the science and data is there. I had personally positive experience with version one. So am excited to try out version two, so looking forward to continue a conversation and see how much we can do to change the world and change the paradigm.
Totally man, thanks so much for having me.
Yeah, thanks so much.
Yeah, thanks Geoff.
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