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Alumnus Mike Chi is Developing Better EEG Recording Equipment at Cognionics

In the first in a series of “Research Expo Poster Winners: Where are they now?” stories, we catch up with Mike Chi, the 2011 winner of the “Best Bioengineering Poster” at Research Expo, the annual research exhibition and networking event of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

San Diego, CA, March 11, 2013 -- When Mike Chi finished his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at UC San Diego in 2011, he co-founded Cognionics. One of his big goals is to put better sensor technologies into the labs of researchers and physicians who study the electrical signals produced by the brain (EEG) and heart (ECG) for a variety of applications in basic research and more applied medical research projects. Applications include diagnosing cardiac disorders and conducting high-resolution brain imaging on freely moving subjects.

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Mike Chi in front of his winning Research Expo poster in 2011. Search the 2013 Research Expo posters.

At Research Expo 2011, Chi presented a custom chip from sensors that detect electrical signals from the body without direct skin contact and act as extremely sensitive amplifiers. His poster, which won the bioengineering category, was: A Custom Integrated High Input Impedance Biopotential Amplifier for Non-Contact and Mobile Health (ECG/EEG) Monitoring

At Cognionics, Chi and his colleagues continue to work on non-contact sensors, supported in part by a grant from NASA to research heart monitors for space travelers. The product that is closest to market, however, is a cutting-edge “dry contact sensor.” This type of sensor does come in contact with the skin, but does not require gel and works through hair.

The technology is a user-friendly, 64 channel dry EEG (electroencephalography) system in the shape of a cap that you put on your head. The high density dry sensors monitor the electrical activity along the scalp, collecting data that provides information across the entire surface of the brain.

With 64 channels, Chi says this cap captures a denser collection of streams of electrical activity than current mobile systems on the market. System performance is approaching that of the best shelf-sized, wired devices. The Cognionics system is also optimized for unassisted use.

“You can set it up in five or ten minutes,” said Chi. For example, participants in a research study could set up the monitors by themselves, which would allow for easy recording of the EEG signals from study participants in their homes on a regular basis. Today’s EEG systems usually require a trained technician to set them up, which makes them cumbersome to use and difficult to take out of the lab, Chi explained.

Some of the innovations introduced by the Cognionics team include the development of a flexible sensor, and replacing the hard metal pins to improve comfort and safety. Other innovations include a new wireless transmission method to ensure very accurate time synchronization of the EEG.

It Takes a Village Campus

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Cognionics has stacked their deck with UC San Diego alumni. Pictured left to right at the Cognionics offices in San Diego: Trevor Kerth (BioE 12) who is wearing a Cognionics EEG prototype, Anna Chang (current bioengineering master’s student), Mike Chi (Ph.D. electrical engineering 2011 and Cognionics Co-Founder), Johnny Wang (mechanical engineering undergraduate). 

Chi is has been no stranger to UC San Diego since he graduated. He comes back to check in with friends and colleagues in his old lab. (Cognionics is just off Miramar Road).

As a graduate student, Chi took entrepreneurism classes through the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center. The von Liebig Center also provided business mentoring and commercialization support to Cognionics through advisor Mike Elconin, who now serves as the CEO of Cognionics. Chi presented the Cognionics story at a von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center 10th anniversary event last year.

Chi and his team are also working with campus researchers to test EEG prototype iterations to see what is working and what needs more tweaking. This is a win-win, Chi explained. He gets to test his prototypes in a live research environment, and the researchers get access to early prototypes of the most advanced EEG monitors.

In addition to the electronics of the sensors themselves, the Cognionics team has focused on improving the mechanics of both the cap and the sensors. These efforts have made “huge improvements on the performance of the EEG system,” Chi said.

Much of this mechanical and electrical engineering work has been done by Jacobs School alumni who now work at Cognionics. 

For example, Trevor Kerth (B.S. Bioengineering ’12) is the head of mechanical engineering. Kerth connected with Cognionics after taking a class with bioengineering professor Gert Cauwenbergs, a Cognionics co-founder.

John Aquino (B.S. Electrical Engineering, ’12) designs circuit boards, prototypes, components and more. Aquino worked on an ECE 191 design project that Cognionics sponsored, and when he graduated Cognionics snapped him up.

Graduates and interns from mechanical engineering, bioengineering and chemistry at UC San Diego are working at Cognionics now.

“So far, everyone here has something to do with UCSD,” said Chi. 

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