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Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs

Backyard Brains: Innovative products to help kids learn about neuroscience

Backyard Brains company logo
Gregory Gage, Ph.D., CEO, and Co-Founder, Backyard Brains

“Once we received our Phase I of our SBIR grant, everything changed … I can say with high confidence that we would not be a company today if it were not for the NIMH SBIR program.”
Gregory Gage, Ph.D., CEO and Co-Founder, Backyard Brains

The brain is the most complex part of the human body. This three-pound organ is the seat of intelligence, interpreter of the senses, initiator of body movement, and controller of behavior. Lying in its bony shell and washed by protective fluid, the brain is the source of all the qualities that define our humanity. Neuroscientists know quite a bit about how the brain functions, but the tools to understand the brain have been relegated to only large university laboratories, inaccessible to the layperson. Enter Backyard Brains .

A teacher recording Alpha waves of her EEG (electroencephalogram) using a low-cost sweatband electrode and DIY electronics
​​A teacher recording Alpha waves of her
EEG (electroencephalogram) using a low-cost
sweatband electrode and DIY electronics.

Backyard Brains is a Michigan-based company co-founded in 2009 at the University of Michigan by Greg Gage, Ph.D., and Tim Marzullo, Ph.D. As graduate students, Gage, Marzullo, and lab mates would conduct outreach with students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Quickly, they realized there was no way to demonstrate compelling experiments like the ones from their research. They wanted a readily available way to bring the research to life and inspire the next generation of neuroscientists.

The first Spikerbox was born, a hand-held device able to provide insight into the inner workings of the nervous system and record living "spikes" ... the messages of neurons in the brain.

TED talk where Gage demonstrates, using a Human-human Interface, how one person’s brain can control someone else’s arm.

The developers created a self-imposed engineering challenge of making a low-cost device that could record spikes and submitted the idea as an abstract to the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in 2008. After working on it all summer long, Gage and Marzullo were able to demonstrate a small device that recorded brain spikes at their poster.

They were surprised by the positive response of scientists—many wanted to buy one. That’s when Gage and Marzullo realized their interest in bringing neuroscience into the classroom was tapping into a larger shared goal of the neuroscience community.

Working with NIMH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) & Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs

The Backyard Brains co-founders learned about SBIR funding through the “Weekly NIH Funding Opportunities and Notices .”

“When we read the description, we knew we had to apply. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for us to make our nascent project come to life.”
Gregory Gage, Ph.D., CEO and Co-Founder, Backyard Brains

They sought out the help of their local entrepreneurial office and received SBIR/STTR research training grants as well as some assistance in forming a rough draft. Once they received the phase one funding of their SBIR grant, Gage, Marzullo, and their fellow developers could finally work full time on the project and start to hire people to help as their sales grew. Due to the grant requirements, they learned and applied several business practices (financial, HR, purchasing) that required significant policy changes, but set the company on the path to becoming profitable and accountable.

“The NIMH SBIR program has allowed us to grow from a simple invertebrate device to a large suite of inventions that range from optogenetics to sophisticated human Brain-Computer Interfaces.”
Gregory Gage, Ph.D., CEO and Co-Founder, Backyard Brains

Backyard Brains has won several awards and has been covered extensively by the media . The creators have also participated in several TedTalks. They are currently writing a book that will combine all of their experiments and (they hope) be used to teach neuroscience courses for grades K-12.

Greg demonstrating the Human-to-Human interface, where the EMG (electromyogram) is sent from one student to another.
Greg demonstrating the Human-Human
interface, where the EMG (electromyogram)
is sent from one student to another.

Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Company Website: 
Contact (for questions about Backyard Brain)
Contact (for questions about the NIMH SBIR/STTR Program):