Today I’m pulling back the curtain on Sonera, starting with news of our most recent round of financing – an $11M seed round led by Mike Dauber at Amplify Partners, with participation from Abstract Ventures. This follows an initial raise in 2020 led by Nabeel Hyatt at Spark Capital, with co-investment from Material Impact, Boom Capital, and angel investor Josh Duyan, former CTRL-Labs CSO and co-founder. Including government grants, this brings our total funding to $20M. In light of the most recent investment, I want to take the time to talk about what we’ve been up to and what we’re doing next.
The reason we started Sonera is simple: to build a sensor that can detect brain activity as easily as we can measure heart rate. This would mean universal access to a dataset that could unlock an infinite number of new products and experiences, including intuitive interfaces for personal computing, novel therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases, and new tools for mapping the brain. Yes, we’re aware this is an ambitious undertaking, but we have an idea for how it can be achieved.
The way we plan to make neural data accessible is by developing a high-performance sensor that can non-invasively detect neural activity. We also want to do this in a scalable way; that means paying careful attention to factors like size, cost, weight, power and usability. Given these considerations, we’re pursuing an approach with two key features:
1. We’re measuring biomagnetic fields. Neural activity simultaneously generates both electrical currents and magnetic fields. The electrical signals widely measured today are heavily attenuated by human tissue, resulting in weak surface currents with poor signal quality; they also require electrodes in direct contact with the skin, resulting in the use of tightly fitted electrodes that are neither robust nor comfortable. We’re focusing on recording magnetic fields because they travel easily through human tissue and can be measured without direct contact to the skin. This means high-fidelity read-out done in a practical, user-friendly way.
2. We’re building a chip. Despite the inherent advantages to recording magnetic fields over electrical signals, you’ve probably never had any of your biomagnetic signals detected before. That’s because the signals are very weak and require the use of ultra-high sensitivity sensors, which are either large, expensive, power-hungry or some combination of the three. As a result, biomagnetic sensing is an underutilized sensing modality reserved for specialized clinical use cases. That’s why we’re building a chip – one that is cheap, small, low-power and light enough to be mass produced, arranged into dense arrays, and easily integrated into consumer wearables.
So if biomagnetic sensing is the holy grail to accessing a rich set of data about neural activity, why hasn’t anyone made a chip-scale sensor to achieve this yet and what makes it possible for us to do this now?
I met my co-founder, Dom, back in 2013 when we were both pursuing our PhDs in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department at UC Berkeley, specializing in semiconductor devices. We were both interested in understanding how novel physical phenomena could be translated into device applications and be built at scale for real-world impact. At the time, Dom was focusing on a recent scientific breakthrough in magnetic materials that held promise for doing something intriguing from both a scientific and commercial standpoint – enabling biomagnetic sensing using a semiconductor-based technology that could be packaged into a chip. In 2018, we founded Sonera to do just that.
The first product we’re developing is the S1 – a chip that can be used to detect muscle activity by reading the magnetic fields generated by muscle movement. We’re starting with muscle sensing because it’s a simpler, stronger set of signals to detect than that of brain activity, serving as an ideal stepping stone for building a brain sensor. Our goal with the S1 is to solve the limitations of a technique called surface electromyography, which is used for numerous muscle sensing applications despite suffering from the typical signal quality and usability challenges of electrical sensing techniques. The first application we’re focusing on is gesture control to unlock new forms of human-computer interaction for personal computing, augmented realities and gaming. The chip-scale form factor of the S1 means easy integration into wrist-wearables, smartwatches and rings for these applications. And the information advantage of this novel dataset could also lead to more advanced capabilities only possible with higher fidelity signals, additional degrees of freedom, ability to detect intention to move, and more.
Successful commercialization of a biomagnetic sensor based on our approach means we can make the next generation of wearables more user-friendly, with increased functionalities. But what’s even more exciting is the potential to invent entirely new products. By measuring biomagnetic signals in places we’ve never looked before and under conditions that were previously infeasible, a whole new realm of creative possibilities opens up. Some of the more interesting applications we envision border on science fiction: neural interfaces that can interact with generative AI systems; hearing aids that dynamically adjust to neural data in real-time; more intelligent prosthetics to restore motor function; gaming experiences designed to work exclusively with gesture-controlled digital hands; and new tools for studying and advancing psychedelic medicines. Ultimately, our vision at Sonera is to unlock biomagnetic sensing at a scale that could move forward our collective understanding of the human body and the world around us to enhance quality of life, health and happiness.
While we’ve come a long way over the last few years in laying the groundwork for developing the S1 and proving its utility, there’s a lot more to be done. During the next phase of Sonera, we’ll be building prototypes and exploring collaborations to demonstrate commercial validation of the S1 chip.
If you're interested in joining us on the adventures ahead, we’re hiring.