New Faces: Getting Thought-Wired With Dmitry Selitskiy
Dmitry Selitskiy is a man on a mission to transform the way that severely disabled people communicate with the world around them.
Building software to turn relatively cheap brain sensing hardware into communication tools, Dmitry and his team at Thought-Wired are providing pathways for people to communicate with their families in ways that were never possible for them before.
On a Friday afternoon at the new and futuristic Hobsonville Point Secondary School, we picked Dmitry’s brain about his challenges, motivations and what keeps him going in a tough field of technology.
What was the original spark of the idea behind Thought-Wired?
About five years ago I was at a conference and there was an activity questioning what people would do if they ran the world. I have a younger cousin who is severely disabled, and the first thing that came to mind was enabling children with disabilities to speak and interact like any other child would.
A couple of weeks later, by coincidence, I saw a video online that demonstrated brain sensing technology using electrodes placed on a person’s scalp. The person very quickly learnt how to manipulate an object on the screen.
Instantly the two things came together in my head.
On one hand you had a piece of technology that allowed a person to interact with a computer without any physical means; and on the other and there was this problem that I wanted to solve, with people who have a sound mind but their bodies don’t work.
So it sounds like this technology that has existed before? What are you doing differently?
The underlying technology has existed for over 70 years. But in the last 10 years, we've started to see that technology come out of the lab and begin to enter the mainstream, with devices that are more consumer friendly. You no longer need millions of dollars’ worth of equipment - you can pick something up for several hundred dollars. What we’re doing differently is taking these devices and creating very specialised applications for our target populations.
We’re starting off with basic communication. The next goal is to provide users with access to a variety of tools with the ultimate goal of full language capability. The initial feedback that we're getting is very positive.
How did you go about building a team for Thought-Wired?
I think it was half me deliberately looking for very specific people and half just getting very, very lucky. I found one of my co-founders through mutual friends on Facebook, and the other by posting an ad through the Spark business planning challenge at Auckland University. The main idea behind building a team has just been to attract and work with people that are like minded in a sense of why we are doing it, so people who are really motivated by creating change.
Have there been any unexpected turns for Thought-Wired and how have you managed those?
There was a very substantial technological pivot that we had to make towards transforming brainwaves into commands. The initial approach we took looked promising based on our research, and we had some success. But when we ran our largest trial, we realised that the successes that we had seen were essentially outliers.
So we had to think quickly on our feet and figure out an alternative approach. It was a tough decision to change direction. You spend so much time on something, you don't want to let go of it, and it's scary to take steps back to try something different. But now it’s looking even better than what we had originally.
We hit that technological wall in the middle of the Ākina Launchpad programme. Having the support of the mentors and advisors really helped us to stay on track and deal with that failure. They also helped us in thinking about going to market - seeing the perspective of the customer, and tapping into the right networks, such as government agencies or impact investing circles.
What would you say are your motivations?
The number one motivation for us is to apply technology for good, to really create impact with technology.
We have amazing technology everywhere, we've got smartphones in our pockets, we've got computers that can do all of these useful things. But then we have thousands of people in New Zealand, and millions of people around the world that are either stuck without the technology that could transform their lives, or they're using very old technology. So there is this massive disconnect.
In very general terms I think it's a natural thing. If you go and spend the day at a special education school, seeing what people with disabilities have to go through, no further explanation is needed afterwards. If you can create impact and do positive things while being financially sustainable, then I don't see a reason why not to do it.
Who have been the most influential people in your life?
I am most inspired by people who look after individuals with disabilities and provide care or specialist services. The amount of effort and energy and enthusiasm they put into their work is incredibly inspirational. What we do is nothing compared to what they have to deal with. So that’s really motivating and inspiring for us.
What are some of the things that nobody told you that you had to learn on your own about entrepreneurship?
One of the key things that I had to learn on my own were the non-business aspects of being an entrepreneur, so really dealing with the personal pressures and balancing out your non work life. You don’t have the nine to five when you’re starting a business. The change is something that you have to deal with and work through.
There are now a variety of support organisations, and entrepreneurs are getting together through meet-ups and different groups. Having something to work on that you truly believe in really helps and having the team to support you really helps as well.
Do you think there are unique perspectives that young people can bring to solving the world’s challenges through entrepreneurship?
Yes, I do. There’s something to being inexperienced and naïve, it allows people to jump into things that are challenging, and give it a really good crack. Whereas someone who has been there before may avoid things that are too difficult. I'm speaking from my own experience, as when I started Thought-Wired I had no idea what I was getting into. If I did, I’m not sure I would have, just because of how difficult and how complex it is.
What is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning?
Really just thinking back to why we are doing this. So whether that’s just thinking of my cousin and my family, or thinking back to the times where we worked with our potential users at special education schools. Just reminding ourselves what kind of change we can bring about, and then all of the issues take the back seat.