The Strength of Utah Tech
Utah is often noted for the strength of its high-tech sector and the “Silicon Slopes” that have produced phenomenally successful companies like Omniture (now Adobe), Instructure, Qualtrics, Ancestry.com, Vivint and many others.
But the state’s high-tech sector also includes amazing companies like Blackrock Microsystems, a small Utah company that sprang from a University of Utah lab in 2008.
Its name makes it sound like a software company, but Blackrock has used a blend of technologies to develop the world’s largest portfolio of FDA and CE cleared technology in the neuroscience, neural engineering and neural prosthetics space. In fact, the technology of Blackrock is at the forefront of worldwide innovations in brain machine interfaces, implantable bionic technologies and epilepsy diagnostics.
President Obama featured Blackrock’s Utah Array in the online broadcast of his 2015 State of the Union address earlier this year. The Utah Array is the neural interface component that allows the brain to successfully use and control prosthetic arms. It’s a technology that could provide life-changing possibilities for veterans who selflessly gave up their limbs while serving their country and for individuals born without limbs. The Utah Array is a DARPA-funded project involving the Johns Hopkins Applied Technology Laboratory and is revolutionizing the neuro-prosthetic field.
Founding Partner Marcus Gerhardt says some of Blackrock’s key products include implantable electrode arrays that directly record brain signals, make them intelligible through proprietary software, which can then be used to manipulate devices such as prosthetic arms and legs. Approximately 500 organizations and neuroscientists in research markets across the globe use Blackrock’s products to develop clinical solutions for next generation pharma development, healthcare and personalized medicine.
University of Utah professor and Blackrock Microsystems President and Executive Chairman Florian Solzbacher has created a commercial vision for the company to lead the market in implantable microsystems. As a 16-year-old, Solzbacher dreamed of creating a link between the human brain and artificial limbs. He pursued his dream as a professor of microelectronics, micro devices and implantation at the University of Utah. After years of research and development, Solzbacher was prepared to commercialize his technology when he met Gerhardt in 2007 on a trip to Europe. Both men had been successful entrepreneurs, creating multiple companies individually, and they decided to pair up for the formation of Blackrock.
Rather than start at ground-zero, says Gerhardt, the duo pursued an existing company working in the same space and used it as the platform to commercialize Solzbacher’s technology. Armed with financing from investors in Europe and the Far East, Blackrock acquired Utah-based Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, Inc., another University of Utah spin-out. Blackrock broke even after nine months, according to Gerhardt, and jumped from about $700,000 in revenue its first year to $3.5 million its second year of operation.
The company now employs about 70 workers through its Utah operations, a clinical spin-off called Blackrock NeuroMed and a European office in Hannover, Germany. The Utah employees work in a “very international environment,” says Gerhardt, as the workers represent about 17 different nations, including Senegal, Iran, Syria and Vietnam. The international environment has been the cornerstone of an exciting culture, “which ensures we are always challenging our preconceptions and always asking how we can make things better.” Although the communication challenges posed by such international diversity should not be underestimated, he notes that because of it the company is much more likely to succeed in communicating with its worldwide customers and can commercialize better on a global scale.
The company’s relationship with the University of Utah Center for Engineering Innovation continues to be an integral part of its success story, both for technology development and engineering talent. Blackrock recruits heavily from the U of U, BYU and Westminster College. Further, Gerhardt says the ability to create a cosmopolitan team of employees that enjoy Utah’s high quality of life is also central to the company’s success. “The Utah brand has helped us because people associate outdoor living and quality of life with it,” he adds.
Gerhardt and Solzbacher are both European, so taking Blackrock’s products to international markets was a natural process for them. Their backgrounds also help the company with its global pursuit of technologies and the connected individuals, companies and universities that can help Blackrock provide the best tools to neuroscientists worldwide. Recently, that led to partnerships with an Israeli company whose products Blackrock is now distributing worldwide, and to a German company whose products Blackrock sells in the U.S.