Start Me Up

At the Columbia Startup Lab, the ideas keep on clicking.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Fall 2014
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“The working space is only part of it,” says Chris McGarry, who is the Office of Alumni and Development’s director for entrepreneurship. “We’re bringing in workshops on branding, on raising capital, on legal structures. Well-established Columbia alumni experts are sharing their experience through workshops and office hours on a weekly basis. If you need help with search-engine optimization, strategic hiring, or introductions to key contacts, our alumni are lending a hand.”

Not surprisingly, spaces for the inaugural year were at a premium. Columbia Entrepreneurship, along with representatives from the schools, received close to 150 applications for the seventy-one spots. At last count, twenty-four of the forty-five teams had secured funding, and fifteen of those raised in excess of $100,000. Five of the teams were profitable.

“ Entrepreneurship is about solving problems,” says Witten. “The solution can be a process, an invention, an algorithm, a thing that you can hold, a policy program.”

“We were looking for teams with passion and commitment, but also some kind of traction,” says David Lerner, an adjunct professor at the business school and the director of Columbia Entrepreneurship. “Half of the businesses have funding, which means that somebody already believed in their idea and wrote a check.”

Spending a day at the lab, it’s easy to see why.

The space is movie-set perfect. A garage door opens from the street onto a lobby of café tables, plush couches, and pinball machines. On one summer-morning visit, a team that has developed a tool to help “denim-heads” find the perfect pants is stationed at a table with its wares: several pairs of perfectly distressed, hipster-friendly jeans. Inside, the rest of the teams are stationed at long communal tables, MacBook back to MacBook back. Superman-style phone booths line one wall for private calls, and around the corner is a kitchen flowing with free coffee and beer.

Phones buzz constantly, and teams scurry in and out of the corner conference rooms like hamsters on caffeine pills. Casual conversations over the microwave at lunch turn into serious debates about pitch strategy and coding languages. As the morning wears on, the whiteboard-lined walls fill with formulas and marketing plans.

“It’s a special place,” says Lerner. “Just wait until you meet the teams.”


Mining the Athlete’s Brain

The Columbia philosopher Jacques Barzun ’27CC, ’32GSAS famously wrote that “whoever wants to know the heart of America had better learn baseball.” If that’s true, Jordan Muraskin ’14SEAS and Jason Sherwin are certainly doing their part. Their company, Neuroscout, looks at the national pastime through a new lens: the players’ brain cells.

“Athletes make hundreds of split-second decisions in every game. Until now, there’s been no way to measure how they do it,” says Muraskin.

Take pitching as an example. The typical pitch in a professional or collegiate game crosses home plate just six hundred milliseconds after leaving the pitcher’s hand. In that time, the batter has to recognize what kind of pitch he’s facing, decide whether to swing, and make contact.

“What we’ve learned is that athletes have different neural signals than people who don’t play sports. At Neuroscout we’re able to measure those signals, decode them, and give a value that can inform player development, player scouting, and performance enhancement,” he says.

They’re doing so using electroencephalography, or EEG, technology which, through a safe, radiation-free metal conductor that sits on the scalp, can measure the electrical pulses that make the brain work. Using either a simulated or a live pitch, Neuroscout can pinpoint the exact millisecond when a player recognizes a pitch and when he decides to swing.

“There’s a lot of talk in scouting about a player’s eye,” says Muraskin, “but it’s all based on post-game stats. We’re trying to get at why those stats exist.”

Muraskin and Sherwin think that their technology will be useful in sports training programs — once a player knows that he can recognize a curveball from forty feet away, he will be better able to adapt his swing to that timing. Similarly, this data might help a pitcher understand if he’s signaling too early the kind of pitch he’s about to throw. Muraskin hopes that eventually they’ll be able to expand their company to the consumer market so that players will be able to get their neural profiles as early as Little League.

Though Muraskin has always been an athlete, baseball was the last thing on his mind when he entered a PhD program in biomedical engineering. Muraskin, who also holds a BS from Columbia Engineering, was focusing on Alzheimer’s and aging research. At Paul Sajda’s Laboratory for Intelligent Imaging and Neural Computing, he met Sherwin, who was spending a postdoctoral year working with musicians, studying how their brains differed from those of non-musicians. One particular experiment, which tracked how trained musicians reacted to changes in pieces that they had learned, resonated with Muraskin, who wondered if they could use similar techniques to think about athletic responses.

“There was no ‘aha’ moment. As we talked further about our research, we could just see this being the next step,” he says.

“It feels like a homecoming for me,” says Sherwin, who played baseball in high school. “I was always trying to think of ways to up my mental game.”

Neuroscout is currently raising capital and working to expand their database of players. They’ll be working this fall with the Columbia football team, as well as some “fall ball” affiliates of Major League Baseball. Eventually, though, they see even broader implications for this kind of analysis, including for military and law enforcement, education and child development, and even human-resources departments.

“Who knows?” says Muraskin. “Plenty of companies are already doing psych analyses and profiling. Can neuro-profiling be that far behind?”

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