Jens Palsberg

Bioengineering Alumnus Unlocks Data in Brain to Help Save Lives

Jul 21, 2020

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom
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Using the experience from his doctoral work at UCLA Samueli and the David Geffen School of Medicine, bioengineering alumnus Robert Hamilton (MS ’09, PhD ’14) founded NovaSignal in 2013 to tap the immense data available in the brain.

At the time, Hamilton was working in neurocritical care and starting to realize the limitation of tools available to study brain health. When actress Natasha Richardson died in March 2009 from an epidural hematoma (bleeding between the brain and skull) after hitting her head in a skiing accident, Hamilton followed the incident closely. Richardson had first refused medical help, but then complained about a severe headache two hours after the incident. She died two days later.

Hamilton realized that Richardson’s death could have potentially been avoided if there had been a non-invasive way to quickly assess the severity of her injury. This was at the turning point in his academic career where he had to decide pursuing a postdoc or a startup. Hamilton chose the latter, considering its promise of real-world solutions would make a greater impact in patient care.

“I understood the need to unlock the diagnostic power of blood flow in the brain,” Hamilton said. “The skull does a great job of protecting the brain, but measuring and quantifying that data provides immense value.”

Leveraging his technical knowledge, Hamilton was introduced to two UCLA Anderson students and fellow engineers, Dan Hanchey and Leo Petrossian, and founded NovaSignal (formerly known as Neural Analytics). Together, they set out to reinvent ultrasound and the measurement of blood flow in the brain by initially focusing on machine learning but eventually expanding into automated robotics.

The team wanted to prove that measuring cranial blood flow was just as important as measuring body temperature, blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate. It was essentially the fifth vital sign that had long been ignored during an initial checkup.

By combining artificial intelligence, robotics and cerebral ultrasound, NovaSignal developed the Lucid Robotic System which autonomously collects and analyzes blood-flow patterns in real time to identify physiological changes.

NovaSignal recently added the former COO of Google Cloud Diane Bryant as Chairman and CEO to help steer the company’s future growth. The hire exemplifies the company’s initial mission of harnessing data to help clinicians make timely decisions. Even though NovaSignal is a medical device firm, Hamilton stresses that it is a software company first.

“Diane has the vision and the expertise to take us to where we want to go next by leveraging this critical data,” Hamilton said.

When it comes to his entrepreneurial success, Hamilton emphasized the need to stay flexible.

“It’s somewhat cliché to pivot, but we started as a company focused on traumatic brain injury, and in the last several years, we discovered that stroke has become very important due to novel treatments. In 2016, we saw that as a challenge and opportunity, and started collecting data to help stroke patients.”

NovaSignal has received funding from venture capitalists and governmental agencies, including the Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Hamilton says the diverse support speaks to the promise of the technology and validity of the approach.

As a member of the Alumni Advisory Board for UCLA Samueli, Hamilton wants to ensure that Bruin Engineers consider entrepreneurship a rewarding pursuit.

“When I was a postdoc, the idea of a startup was foreign as a potential career path,” he said. “Most enter graduate school with their eyes set on either industry and academics, yet there are tremendous advantages and opportunities in starting your own company. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of unknowns about the process of starting a company that might be addressed within the curriculum.”

Hamilton continues to mentor several startups and is working to build activation energy for startups at UCLA Samueli.

“By any way, shape or form, I want to inject this entrepreneurial mindset into undergrad and grad students. It’s a leap of faith and if you look at the potential job creation and impact on patient care, it’s meaningful work.”

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