Senseye’s lead systems engineer, Joe Brown, during a test run on a
hardware setup the company is building for a research project.
his idea morphed. “As awesome as the bionic chip concept
was, I realized it didn’t make sense until we figured out the
command-and-control mechanism around it,” he says. “If
you had a computer in a contact lens, you’re not going to use
a keyboard or a mouse or a touchscreen. Those things serve
as a bridge between man and machine. So the idea was to
shift it—to figure out a way to tap into the brain wirelessly.”
By late 2013, when the world was agog over Google’s
connected eyeglasses (remember when Google Glass was a
thing?), Zakariaie began homing in on how his idea might
become a business. He would build market-research applica-
tions for Glass, he decided, that collected data on everything
shoppers interacted with in a store. But he realized “the data
would be worthless until we could figure out why people
made purchase decisions. Did you buy the Tide detergent
because of the price? The packaging? The shelf placement?
Because your mom always bought it?” Decades of research
had shown that reading pupil dilation provides important
clues to brain activity, but this works in the lab better than
in the real world, where it’s di;cult to isolate what a person
is reacting to. Zakariaie decided to focus on the iris and its
thousands of muscle fibers that control the pupil and tie
back to the nervous system. Able to measure much finer
eye movements, he could, in theory, begin to understand
more precisely what drives them.
In 2015, he raised six figures worth of funding from
friends and family, hired a couple of neuroscience PhDs
from UCLA—and promptly burned through all the cash and
laid o; his six-person team the following year. “You give a
bunch of money to an 18-year-old who has no idea what
he’s doing and that’s what happens,” Zakariaie deadpans.
Desperate to find a lifeline, he heard about a startup
competition in Austin in early 2017 that would award its
winner $100,000 and o;ce space at Capital Factory. A few
weeks later, Zakariaie landed in Austin at 11 in the morning,
pitched at 12: 30, won the competition at 4, and was flying
back home before dinner. Two weeks later, he moved from
his parents’ house to Texas.
His timing was good. Baer has long been a key cheer-
leader for Austin’s tech scene, and having a precocious and
wildly ambitious young founder at hand was perfect for his
narrative that Austin was becoming the next great tech hub.
President Obama’s secretary of defense, Ash Carter, had
made a couple of visits to Capital Factory the previous year
and left intrigued, and then various organizations within the
DOD began visiting Austin, seeking ways to work with startups. Baer started bringing Zakariaie around to meet the
military brass, thinking they might find mind-reading technology compelling.
Zakariaie was grinding through 18-hour days at Capital