Neuroscience startup Humm: would you pay $60/month to be 20% smarter?

humm patch learning memory neuroscience

Humm is a small grey patch you wear on your forehead that boosts the normal electrical signals in your prefrontal cortex, making you learn faster, retain memories longer, and assimilate complex data quicker.

In research studies, subjects had a 20% boost in cognitive abilities.

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, I interview Humm CEO Iain McIntyre. We talk about what Humm is, how it works, the benefits it provides, how he’s planning to take it to market … and why McIntyre (a dual law and physics major) is in this business at all.

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Neuroscience startup Humm says it can make you 20% smarter


Would you pay $60/month to be 20% smarter?

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Full transcript: this Humm patch could help you learn faster and remember more

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier:  Iain, let’s start at the very beginning. What is Humm? 

Iain McIntyre: Humm, in the first couple of years, is a little wearable device. It’s very simple, very easy to use. It’s a little patch that you wear on your forehead, just sticks on like that.

And what it does is it accelerates the speed that you can learn difficult things, and helps you analyze data and process information faster and better.

But Humm, as a company overall, is a company that’s translating the latest neuroscience research into products that help people get the best out of their brains. 

John Koetsier: That sounds very cool, and it sounds very science fiction-y, and it sounds almost insane. I can place this little thing on my forehead here and I can learn faster; I can learn better; my brain works better.

How does it work? What does it do? 

Iain McIntyre: Yeah, it sounded insane to me the first time. It’s a super understandable response to hearing about this. I think it’s not really made its way into the public consciousness yet.

Basically there have been scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and people trying to understand how the brain works for like the last hundred years. But really the field has become incredibly exciting in the last 20 years as computers have become powerful enough [for] us to model what’s going on in the brain, and as the tools that we develop to understand the brain — the devices we put on to measure the electricity that’s going on — really open up a new understanding of how our daily behavior and feelings and emotions and the things we do actually relate to this system that is the brain.

And really, in the last 5 to 10 years, there’s been an explosion in this new field called neurostimulation, which is the ability to actually not just measure what’s going on in the brain and understand it, but directly change it. And that’s something that’s been done in the medical context for more than 30 years.

Tens of thousands of people who’ve been studied, you know, looking at how to help people with depression and things like that. But in more recent times, we’ve actually started to uncover that there are some benefits that even healthy people can have. And that’s what Humm’s doing, actually. We’re commercializing some really recent research from the last 10 years, using a very tiny amount of electricity to tune what’s going on inside of the brain, basically by connecting the cells of the brain, the neurons, in a way that allows people to learn faster. So that’s pretty exciting. 

John Koetsier: That is exciting. I mean, that’s incredible. I mean, you know, my job is literally learning stuff and sharing stuff. That’s literally what I do. And being able to do that quicker, better, faster, would be incredible.

What’s going on in your brain that you’re fixing or improving with Humm?

 Iain McIntyre: Yeah. So, we have a healthy aging that we all encounter over the course of our lives—

John Koetsier: Is it really healthy? [laughs]

Iain McIntyre: Yeah, well that’s what I would like to challenge. We’ve come to accept it because that’s just how humans evolved for millions of years.

We have come to accept that from the age of about 25, it is these days, our brains become less and less in our control from the perspective of the ability to learn things quickly and stuff like that.

And really scientists started to dive into that to understand why that is, and why it ends up in things like dementia or Alzheimer’s and stuff at the end of life. But then, in that process, started to uncover how learning is actually tied to the systems within our brain. Because obviously when you want to figure out how to fix those things, you have to understand what’s actually going on.

And the brain is a really, really complex system. Actually, it’s much more complicated than any computer that exists today. We think maybe in the next 50 years we’ll make a computer that’s somewhere near as complicated as the brain, but we’re still a bit far off. And it’s not just a circuit like a computer is with electricity going about. There’s multiple different things going on: physical, chemical, etc.

So it’s very complex.

But we do have the ability these days to draw some conclusions from what we know already.

And one of those things is that over the course of your life, as you’re experiencing that healthy aging process, actually neurons become less able to talk to each other in a way that is useful for you, for learning and other things like that. Basically the brain is a bit like an orchestra and all of those complicated systems play together. If you want it to be in tune so that you can focus or learn things faster, you need the brain — like different parts of the brain, different neuron systems within the brain — to be connected and be talking in the same language.

And really that’s what we do at Humm.

We introduce the conductor, the person who at the front of the stage tells the orchestra how to play in time and what tune to play. We do that with a little tiny patch which is putting this tiny bit of electricity into the forehead — just there — and that little bit of electricity encourages neurons to talk to each other at a frequency that we encourage to happen through the patch. It’s a thing that when you’re about 15 to 20 is really easy to get to happen. And that’s why we typically find ourselves able to learn languages and things like that quite fast in our adolescence, but as we grow older, for some reason that system just seems to deteriorate.

So, it’s being able to access that state of being a child, and what it looks like is the electrical signals in the brain are measurable as being more like that childlike state. 

John Koetsier: Wow! Super interesting. I have to try this. It sounds very cool. Now different areas of the brain do different things, right? So prefrontal cortex, maybe some of your more complex thinking, other things like that. Is it the back of your brain that’s more on physical agility and everything like that?

I mean, can you have a helmet Humm that just enhances everything?

Iain McIntyre: Yeah, one day. One day that will be a thing. Maybe it won’t even need to be a helmet. Maybe it’ll just be a little box that shoots lasers into your head, that kind of thing, that you can have a hundred meters away from you. So that’s the kind of goal, we don’t want people to have to put— [crosstalk]

John Koetsier: Shooting lasers into your head? Do you have sharks somewhere? [laughter] You’re a full on techno genius here.  

Iain McIntyre: Yeah, yeah. Well it’s an interesting future, but that kind of stuff is maybe 50 or 100 years away. Yeah. So different parts of the brain do focus on different things. And we know that because when we look at measurements or recordings of the brain, which we collect in different methods — whether it’s an MRI that you go to a hospital and they put you into the machine and you sit there for half an hour, or the way that we do it more commonly in the lab is putting little electrical measurement seek devices of different parts of the brain to record the electricity that’s going on. And we can see that different parts of the brain are really much more active or less active when you’re doing different things.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain just underneath the forehead that Humm targets, is the part that’s the most developed. It’s the part that separates us from monkeys and things like that that were previously developed, the most developed brains before we evolved, and that part of the brain as the executive functioning part of the brain.

All parts of the brain are always involved in all activities, but like I said, some parts really light up and become much more active. And it’s been found that when you’re really focusing, learning, or just doing difficult tasks, cognitive tasks that are very human as opposed to what animals do, that part of the brain is really active. And so that was where we started to focus about 20 years ago to think about how do we actually induce changes in that part of the brain but also the whole brain, in a way that would be able to help or achieve better things, avoid disease, that kind of thing. 

John Koetsier: So, these are pretty incredible claims that you’re making, pretty impressive claims. You’ve done some testing, including with the U.S. Air Force. Talk about some of the testing that you’ve done and the research results that you’ve received. 

Iain McIntyre: Yeah. So Humm is actually built on a pretty well-understood method of what I called neurostimulation, it’s putting electricity into the brain.

We didn’t want to commercialize something that didn’t exist, that couldn’t be proved by science.

There are some companies out there that are trying to go ahead of the data and commercialize things that haven’t yet been proved, because a lot of people get anecdotally very good experiences. But we at Humm believe that this technology is new and it’s rational to be skeptical. It’s rational to even come from the perspective that you’ve heard of many vitamins and things like that, that have these kinds of claims, that it’s a good idea not to believe because there’s no data.

And we want to separate ourselves by actually building on stuff that has been validated across the world in peer-reviewed studies by very legitimate universities and replicated multiple times. And so that’s our goal for product development over time, and it is how we’ve developed this first product.

There were perhaps 10 studies doing exactly what Humm does with our little patch, but with $10,000 plus devices that took a neuroscientist half an hour to set up in a lab context.

And what we’ve done is we’ve really taken that method and put it into something that people couldn’t really easily and simply use. And we’re really just replicating the results found in those studies in real world contexts.

We did do a scientific replication study overseen by UCSF neuroscientists at the Neuroscape lab, Dr. Ted Zanto and a couple scientists in Berkeley and other places too, that was able to replicate those existing studies and find that with a group of people between 18 and 56, we could improve what’s called their working memory capacity — which is like the RAM of their brain — by 20%, as quickly as within three minutes of putting the patch on, and for about 45 minutes to an hour and a half after the patch was worn for 15 minutes.

So, pretty exciting.

Once we had done that study and built the platform that we use, we actually approached the Air Force and a couple of other groups and offered them the opportunity to be the first to experience it or try it in their context. So we get to do a formal clinical study with them. That’s the kind of thing we’re aiming to start later this year.

But actually we gave them a couple hundred patches — they paid us for them — that were the very early prototypes which they distributed to academies around the country — so people who train for the Air Force obviously have to go through a lot of what we would consider kind of school learning: doing maths and science and things like that to understand the systems they use every day. And those people got to try the experience of putting on this patch and using it as a tool to advance their learning. It seems like they had a really good experience and they’re really interested in proceeding with some more formal trials.

For the moment though, we’ve been focused on just making this platform real. And also we have a consumer focus. We want to make sure that we’re testing with real people, everyday people, as much as we test with those kinds of really high-performing organizations and in scientific studies too. Because we’re focused on making this a good user experience, something that’s real for people — able to be accessed — instead of these like very expensive, hard-to-use devices that have come before us.

John Koetsier: I could use a RAM upgrade, that’s for sure … maybe a hard drive, as well. [laughter]

Iain McIntyre: Could be Humm version three, I think. 

John Koetsier: Exactly. Very, very cool. How do people get it? And how much does it cost? 

 Iain McIntyre: Yeah, so this is the first time we’ve actually publicly spoken about the pricing. We’ve been working on the fundamental R&D and other things for a long time, the last about three years since we started this.

And I’m excited to announce that we’re actually thinking we’ll make it about a $60 monthly cost.

And the reason that we break it into a monthly cost is to help it be most convenient for people. It’s not to earn more money from a subscription or anything like that, as some people might think when they hear it — similar to Netflix, that kind of thing — really, it’s about giving people the use of this patch to go together with something called spaced repetition learning. It’s very simply the idea that you shouldn’t cram the night before an exam; you should study over a couple weeks.

And so, encouraging people to have consistent use and to make this as simple and easy to use as possible, we decided to make it a semi-disposable or semi-reusable device. And that means you don’t have to go through the effort of charging it, operating the software and things like that. We just send you these environmental friendly patches every month that you can use along with our app to track your performance improvement, and improve the speed at which you learn dramatically by using it every time you’re learning something new. How do people get a hold of it?

At the moment, we’re still actually in alpha and beta testing of various features of what we do. We have had a couple organizations integrate into that, but mainly we’re just focused on getting normal everyday people to use it. Obviously, the people who are most excited tend to be your white collar professional — people like yourself, John, who are learning new things every day in order to keep up and change— 

John Koetsier: [Tugging on shirt collar] Green collar. Very green collar, today. [laughter]

Iain McIntyre: But, yeah, they’re still in beta. We are signing people up for beta. And as part of that, we’re actually actively collecting people’s email addresses and we’ll be letting them know as we open new cohorts of testing over the year. And that’s a really exciting opportunity to be one of the first to try it. 

John Koetsier: Iain, you have literally created a subscription platform for intelligence. I mean, this is insanity. This is the future … come here. That’s kind of a crazy reality. I’m having trouble comprehending that. I can imagine that, I guess it kind of ties into like a Neuralink type of future, right, where you are augmented and you have abilities that guess what … you probably want to keep, and that will keep you being a customer. 

Iain McIntyre: Hmm. Totally. Yeah, I think it’s really exciting to think about the fact that for many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve really been at the mercy of our lack of understanding of a lot of our biological systems, but in particular our brain. And so we just had to experience these effects like “natural aging” quote/unquote, which don’t necessarily really contribute well through our lives.

And the lack of knowledge of how we learn even, things like just different ways that the brain works, what fatigue’s impact is … we’re really becoming aware of how to change things and Humm represents kind of the next step beyond just awareness and behavioral change. It’s the ability to use something that actually helps, and helps quickly and measurably.

And I think you can think of that in a positive or a negative light, you know, people obviously have ethical concerns that I share about the use of this technology to help one person beat another person. But for the moment, trust me, it’s a very new technology. It definitely needs to be paired with things like a healthy lifestyle and the awareness of how you learn and improving how you sleep and things. But really it gives people the ability to keep up in a world that’s changing really fast, and to get ahead by putting more effort into themselves.

And we’re not here to make this a thing that rich people can afford and others can’t. We’ve intentionally made this as cheap as possible in order to make it accessible, and we’ll continue to try and find ways to do that. I think when you talk about things like Neuralink, they’re trying to do a similar thing in a very different context that’s brain surgery based — putting a chip into someone’s brain. No matter how you do that, that’s going to be expensive and very difficult, and so we’re really trying to tackle that problem in a more aggressive way than they are. 

John Koetsier: Well, it’s also noninvasive, which is kind of nice for those of us who like the fact that our skull keeps our brains in and the rest of the world out. You know, obviously I love to be augmented in just about any way possible, but it’s a big decision to allow somebody to drill through your skull and implant something in there. This is a much easier decision potentially as well.

I wanted to ask you maybe even a bit of a personal question. What drew you to this field? Why are you doing this? Why are you running this company? Why is this your passion? 

Iain McIntyre: Yeah, two things happened in my life at once. I was studying law, and I was doing physics as well, for interest. So I’ve always had this passion for learning things. But I was getting ready to graduate. I was working in the law and I was really challenged by the fact that the things that I had learned in university were nearly obsolete.

And the volume of information that I had absorbed in university — you know, you go through like 150 exams in four or five years of university — was tiny compared to the information that I would have to learn over the course of my career, especially if I wanted to do well. And so I was staring down the barrel of that, that I think every young professional and in fact many of us all generally in professional careers these days are having to confront as technology and other things rapidly accelerate.

Combined with at the time my grandma had just died, and she died with dementia, really bad dementia, which is this really visceral experience to have where you can see that someone’s brain is just not what it was; it just doesn’t work the same way anymore. And the fundamental lack of understanding that we had of what’s going on in her brain was just incredibly frustrating. And to know that there were technologies that were tackling that problem, putting that together with my personal problem, you know, probably one day I’ll get dementia too, but for the moment, I just have to learn really fast.

I decided that this was something that I would prefer to dedicate my life to. And it’s hard … it’s very slow science for the moment. One of our goals at Humm is to build a device that scientists can use to get much more rapid testing going, so that we can learn more and accelerate the field.

But yeah, my co-founder Dr. Tim Fiori and I decided that we wanted to find a way to make this technology noninvasive and easy. 

John Koetsier: Well, thank you for that. That’s great context for why you’re doing that. And I have a little bit of experience as well with people with dementia, and it’s a horrific thing because they lose who they are and you lose who they were, and that’s really, really challenging.

It’s also interesting to hear that you were in the well-known legal/physics realm [laughs] … so it’s like, I guess that’s not faster than light travel, ’cause that’s illegal. I’m not sure. But, in any case, very, very interesting.

I guess one final question, let’s assume somebody gets this and starts using it. What’s the protocol? Like, do you use it once a day for 15 minutes? Do you use it every four hours? What’s the protocol? And how long do the benefits last? 

Iain McIntyre: Yeah. So, people shouldn’t use Humm unless they’re already paying attention to keeping their brain healthy.

I think it’s fair to say, I’m not ashamed of the fact that we can’t make as much of a difference in your life as not abusing your brain. For the moment, the technology is still fairly new.

That being said, it’s an incredible thing to be able to reach for something at a time that you want to learn, and put it on, and suddenly be measurably better at learning. And we measure things like people could acquire vocabulary quicker when they’re learning a language; they can focus for longer at the end, and things like that.

So, really the best way to use it is to plan when you’re going to be learning things, and then be able to better rely on using your brain to get further along in that process. It’s best used several times a week. Like I said, it’s based on something called spaced repetition learning. You can also use it in those moments where you don’t want to reach for caffeine or something like that, but you just want generally a mental boost.

And a lot of people do find it really effective for that too, because working memory RAM is better, is an input into your focus and concentration. But the way that we see people use it the best is by planning out the scope of learning and then sitting and doing that learning. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Iain McIntyre: And typically those sessions are best kept to kind of 45 minute blocks with breaks. You can, scientifically and safety-wise, use a patch multiple times a day. But we actually recommend people use them once a day, based again on that idea of spaced repetition learning, breaking up your learning, minimizing fatigue, and really using the patches which are still precious. We don’t have a million of them and they cost about the same as the price of a cup of coffee at the moment, actually. They’re not cheap as chips, and so really the best way to use it is when you need it the most. 

John Koetsier: So there’s going to be some people out there who hear this and they’re going to get one, and they’re going to wear it 24/7 [laughs] … maybe not 24/7, but they’re going to wear it 9, 10, 12 hours a day or something like that. Is that a health risk? 

Iain McIntyre: It’s not a health risk, because the amount of electricity we use is actually really tiny. It’s a great thing to say that the scientists who did the groundwork here were able to find a way to use such a small amount of electricity that it’s several orders of magnitude or thousands of times less electricity than is already in the brain that we’re actually putting into it.

And another thing is a 15-minute phone call puts a lot more electricity through your brain or a lot more power dissipated than the patch does.

What we’re doing is we’re encouraging natural brain state to come about … artificially. We’re doing it on demand. So it’s not an unhealthy thing. There is a good question to ask, and people can go and read our white paper of whether there are other effects than what the working memory effect that we’re proposing is, and that’s something we’ve actually dug into a lot the last couple of years — trying to measure are there any potential side effects?

There are the people who should not use this, for various reasons, like people with ADHD or people with Alzheimer’s who have much more complicated things going on in their brain than the average healthy person. But for most people, this is a very safe, very effective device. And in our white paper study, as in the studies before us, we found that we could get 95% of people who wore the device within three minutes to have on average 20% more working memory capacity.

So it’s something that I think a lot of people will find very useful when they’re trying to learn.

John Koetsier: It’s incredibly impressive. And it just makes me wonder what will be available in two years, three years, four years, five years, and what that will look like. And based on what you’re saying, it could be some device that sits on my desk or sits on my wall somewhere and just aims [laughs]… beams focus and intelligence into my brain. It sounds really very cool. Iain I want to—

Iain McIntyre: I think the science is accelerating really fast and we should all be paying attention to that. There is a big problem though, which is that many — all of the devices that have come before Humm and many that are currently being commercialized, they’re very hard to use. And I think, understandably, the scientists and engineers who build this technology tend to be laser focused on the technology and the science, but sometimes at the expense of making it a useful experience for people. And that’s really what I want to change, and that’s what we’re excited to be announcing with this new product that we’re building. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Iain, I want to thank you for your time. 

Iain McIntyre: Thank you very much. Good to meet you, John.

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