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Meredith Turner
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Organizational Neuroscience: An Overview of Ways Entrepreneurship Is Capitalizing on Neuroscience: Inspiration for I-O Psychology

M.K. Ward, University of Western Australia

Although many of us in the academic realm have been embroiled in debate regarding the way forward for organizational neuroscience (ON), entrepreneurship is one area that has made moves with ON without looking back. Entrepreneurship scholars are eager to use neuroscience in their research, and entrepreneurs are building products and services being introduced to the markets go beyond adding to the number of options offered to consumers. These innovations are moving from areas like marketing and medicine, and entering spaces in which I-O psychology has expertise (e.g. selection and performance). Being aware of these changes and active involvement at the intersection of I-O psychology is a nontrivial step for I-O psychologists to continue to be relevant and important in future work. This issue discusses ways in which entrepreneurs are using ON in their businesses, from startups to large, established organizations.

What’s Happening in Business

The short answer is, a lot. Angellist shows 186 companies with an average valuation of $3.6 million classified as “neuroscience startups.” Entrepreneurs around the world from Waterloo to Tucson, to San Francisco, to Singapore are leveraging neuroscience to capitalize on market opportunities. What types of products and services are these startups providing? It varies from context specific brain profiles, to neurosurgical tools, to brain training, to consumer brain imaging, to music discovery. Of course, the products and services being developed and sold involve some sort of technology component. Next, we describe some particularly relevant examples to be aware of.

Neuromarketing

Consumer research and marketing research companies have been around for years and have leveraged things like biometric tools, eye tracking, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG) technologies (for more information about EEG, read our interview with Stephanie Korszen here). For some of these companies (e.g., Affectiva, Buyology, Forebrain, MindMetic), a key focus is on using neuroimaging and other neuroscience-related technologies to improve understanding of consumerism, emotions, and engagement. Neuromarketing companies involve entrepreneurs who are bridging science and business in order to fill a market need and paved the way for different sorts of businesses.

Selection and Placement

Moving to a more traditional I-O psychology topic (selection and placement), entrepreneurs are leveraging technology and neuroscience in this domain as well. Particularly powerful is the combination of machine learning with neuroscience-based applicant assessments or games that are designed using cognitive neuroscience. This assessment data are then used in conjunction with machine learning algorithms to estimate a person’s ability to do a job on offer. Cognition, behavior, personality, emotional intelligence, culture fit, and skills deemed essential to the job are assessed in some of the software platforms. Cognisess, for example, promises help for companies looking to improve their recruitment, claiming they are able to assess applicants without bias or subjectivity. This is a claim that can be verified by I-O psychologists. Another company that similarly focuses on predicting performance, Scoutible uses games developed based on neuroscience that take 20-minutes wherein machine learning algorithms collects data points from high performing individuals as they play the game. Then from the company’s current team’s play on the game, they build a Performance Predictor based on traits it identified in the top performers. When potential job candidates play the game, it uses those data points to predict performance and organizational culture fit. This is a prescreening method use to short list high-potential applicants and notify managers who can proceed with next steps in the selection process.

Performance

After selecting the right people for the right positions in your organization there’s still a chronic concern to maximize performance, or at least perform adequately. Here we discuss an intrapreneurship example. Folks at IBM have devised a way to use cognitive computing, which in essence works the way our brains function, in order to create computing that learns and adapts to the world in much the same ways we do as human beings.  It makes inferences, revises those inferences, and becomes smarter and better at performing a variety of tasks, including flying an airplane. Which leads me to the example: Airline carriers are using IBM Watson to develop a system to detect turbulence in a way that provides alerts to pilots who can proactively avoid turbulence that costs airlines $100 million per year in costs resulting from maintenance needs and delays.

AI and cognitive computing is not a new idea or term to many of us; however, it’s worth discussing in the context of organizational neuroscience and entrepreneurship. AI and cognitive computing, particularly Watson, are leading to things like chatbots that act as lawyers who make cases, model “flow” for productivity, and/or assist in establishing business partners as well as match making. It only takes a small logical leap to imagine a chatbot that plays the role of I-O psychologist. This means it’s important to understand the products and services that the business provides in order to understand the people doing the work and consult for such organizations. As long as the work is affected by these innovations, I-O psychologists need to keep up and then set the tone because we are the experts in data-based conclusions about work after all.

Hardware Products

Using neuroscience technologies to satisfy consumer needs, there are some hardware products that are already gaining traction. Stress management and relief is one need that’s currently being targeted by hardware products. Thync, MeloMind, and Muse are three companies that use different neuroscience technologies.

Thync uses transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in order to help consumers relax and to improve consumers’ quality of sleep. The product combines electrode placement and transdermal electrical neuromodulation waveforms to influence cranial and spinal nerve pathways. The idea being that those nerve pathways synapse with key brainstem nuclei involved in modulating stress levels, mood, and sleep cycles.

Rather than TMS, MeloMind uses EEG sensors in hardware that connects with headphones through which they provide a neurofeedback loop. Their research and development involved creating signal processing algorithms for neural activity during cognitive processes involved in memory, emotions, and a resting state. The neurofeedback processes paired with EEG is what makes this hardware different from the other examples mentioned. Neurofeedback has already been discussed in leadership development in I-O psychology and organizational behavior.

Muse has developed a researcher-friendly EEG headband with dry sensors that is worn such that the sensors interface with the forehead. EEG dry sensors, battery-powered Bluetooth, and digital signal processing to assess and use brainwave data in lab or work settings. In the market, Muse aims to support and guide meditation using the real-time brain state. It measures states of focus, relaxation, and mind-wandering. What’s particularly interesting is that there are audio and research tools also are available on Windows. Consequently, unique to Muse in this review of commercialized neuroscience is that there is a link back to research by providing software, a forum, and data resources that make it relatively easy to use Muse in research studies.

Conclusions

Expect a lot more products and software development that leverage ON. Many of these startups will be exciting, transformative innovations with powerful products and services. Wherever technology, neuroscience, and work is leveraged to fill a market need—whether we’re aware of it or not—we will see implications that have breadth (global dispersion, social inequality) and depth (individual and personal change). Therefore, it is essential that entrepreneurs be extremely well-versed in neuro-ethics.  A large number of startups that leverage neuroscience and technology does not necessarily mean that these products will be properly regulated whatever that even means. So, let’s start thinking now and having policy discussions for what we want the future of work to look like at the intersection of neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and I-O psychology.


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