From Black Holes to Better Health: How MindMics and a2 Collective Have Their Eyes on Your Ears

By Mark Ogilbee posted 06-16-2022 11:00 PM

Anna Barnacka of MindMics

MindMics, a startup portfolio member of the AgeTech Collaborative™ (ATC), is laser-focused on revolutionizing the technology of wearable biofeedback devices. MindMics recently completed an agreement to run a program with the a2 Collective, a testbed and ATC participant dedicated to helping Americans live longer, better lives through the application of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies. 

We sat down with MindMics founder Anna Barnacka to discover what MindMics is all about and what they hope to accomplish in their work with the a2 Collective.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Can you tell me a little bit about MindMics and what inspired you to start the company? 

In my previous life, I was an astrophysicist. I was a NASA Einstein Fellow at Harvard, working day and night, doing a lot of exciting things like continuous monitoring of black holes. But I was experiencing a lot of stress, and I began looking for a way to monitor my own stress. I thought, “There are tools to monitor black holes; there should also be good tools out there to monitor my own health.” But when I began looking, they weren’t there. 

If you want to monitor your own health, on the one hand you have wearable devices like watches, but they won’t give you precise insight in real time to take control of your health and improve it. You can reflect on the data later, but it’s not actionable enough because of the delay. Also, there’s not enough information that you can get from your wrist, because it’s too far away from your brain. And then, on the other hand, you have elaborate medical devices that can monitor your health very well, but they’re not wearable, and you usually only have access to them if you are seriously ill. 

I spent a lot of time working on black holes and designing and working on telescopes, arrays and data — and I thought I could use that knowledge to figure out how we could come up with convenient but more accurate technology for monitoring our health.  

It turns out that earbuds are the perfect solution. First, they're convenient because we already use earbuds to make phone calls and listen to music. Second, because the ear is the perfect spot to collect better medical data: The ear is close to the brain and heart, which are the two most important organs in our bodies. The ear is much better than the wrist for this purpose — there’s not much happening on your wrist. 

So I started diving into neuroscience and medical devices. As a physicist, I began wondering about what kinds of signals our bodies generate that current medical devices are not capturing. And I discovered that, basically, our bodies produce vibrations at a very low frequency, below the range of our hearing. Who would have thought? 

So we figured out how to collect very high quality information about our cardiovascular health by using sensors placed in the ear to detect those vibrations. And we realized that if we could put this information in a dashboard, we could help people manage their stress and optimize their health, all in real time. 


So the earbuds detect more than just your heartbeat? 

In principle, everything that moves in the human body generates vibrations that travel to the ear. This is why this technology has such a huge potential: It helps us monitor all aspects of our health related to everything that’s moving inside the body, not just cardiovascular health. There’s blood flow. There’s muscle movement. The lungs generate a lot of signals. You can think about this technology from the perspective of “human audio,” the sound your body is generating as it moves. And this is unique to each person, because it depends on the unique structure of your body and the way you move.

That's really cool. So the earbud collects the data... and then what? 

Our prototype version works like a normal earbud: You can listen to music; you can take phone calls. But it also collects this data from your body, and sends it to our app, which sends it to the cloud. 

The real-time aspect is important. When it comes to stress, we usually think about wanting to reduce it because of the negative effects it can have on our health. But research shows that some stress is actually beneficial — it helps you be alert, and it helps you build resilience, for two examples. So being able to control your stress in the moment in the way you want is more effective than reviewing a data set at some future point. 

Once people have this data, how can they act on it to influence their stress levels? 

In terms of the protocols, we will be starting with breathing exercises. These are very versatile protocols; they’re brief, and everybody can do them. And once you have the real-time data, you can really see how different things impact you. For example, if you want to stay alert and improve performance, you can adjust the ratio between your inhaling and exhaling, which changes the ratio between oxygen and carbon dioxide that your nervous system perceives, which can move you from the rest-and-digest response toward the fight-or-flight response. 

This is just one of the first protocols we’re working on. With the data our technology collects and the knowledge that gives you, you can make better decisions about what really helps you improve your health.


I’d like to learn about the work you will be doing with the a2 Collective. What are you hoping to achieve with them? 

Our work with the a2 Collective will allow us to focus on the next actionable aspect related to our health, which is vascular age. We want to use information we gathered in a recent clinical study to build algorithms that will allow us to extract a parameter called arterial stiffness. This is an important parameter, because as you age — we mostly think about this in terms of how collagen makes our skin get sluggish. But collagen affects our arteries as well, and it’s an important aspect in controlling blood pressure. As we age, and as we experience stress, our arteries become stiffer.  

So the goal of our project with the a2 Collective is to develop our data to build a marker that can tell you what your vascular age is in real time. And the beauty of that is, again, once you have this data, you can actually improve your vascular health through various exercises and protocols — you can reduce your stress; you can make yourself feel younger, internally. 

Can you describe the process of applying to work with the a2 Collective? 

First of all, we learned about the opportunity thanks to the AgeTech Collaborative™, which always keeps us in the loop with opportunities like this, which is extremely valuable — we may never have known about this opportunity if it weren’t for the Collaborative. 

For the project with a2, we wrote an application that explained our previous research, and then we met with them. The process was extremely efficient — usually when applying for these kinds of things it takes weeks or months just to prepare all of the information up front. But here, it was only after we were accepted that they asked for a small mountain of additional documents, but still not as many as you might typically expect. As a startup founder I appreciated this approach, because we didn’t have to invest all that time preparing documentation until after we knew that we were accepted. 


Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share? 

The work we are doing combining exceptionally precise data with real-time interactions has incredible potential. Think about back in the day, when people used to walk around with compasses to find their way. That worked, but only within certain parameters. That is more or less the current state of biofeedack wearables. Yes, you can find out what your heart rate is, but it’s limited.  

Now think about GPS. The moment someone invented GPS and it was precise enough to give information in real time, suddenly you had the possibility for all kinds of new applications — Uber and Lyft, for example. 

Similarly, with our own health, once we have all this precise information and can access it in real time,  all kinds of possibilities open up for building brand new solutions.