Neon team members Deborah Johnson, Sunil Mallya, Sophie Lebrecht
With a myriad of online video choices, which one will you click? Sophie Lebrecht thinks she knows — and with Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Michael Tarr, she's co-founded Neon, a company built on her groundbreaking research.
This research demonstrates that the brain's visual perception system guides our decisions unconsciously through the positive and negative information we automatically associate with images.
"Once we realized we could look at a brain signal for an image and predict whether people would choose that image, we realized this could be really powerful," Lebrecht explained. "I had this overwhelming sense that this was going to be useful and that we should get it out there in the world."
Neon capitalizes on the findings with software that replicates those processes, used at this point to select the most visually appealing thumbnails for online videos.
The company is currently testing its software with a number of sports and media publications and expects to have its product for sale by year-end. While specific applications and quantifiable outcomes for the visual selection technology remain unknown, future customers are expected to include connected TV, photo sharing, e-commerce and the advertising industry.
Long fascinated by how humans use vision to interact with the world, London native Lebrecht came to Carnegie Mellon as a post doctoral fellow to continue her work with Tarr, the George A. and Helen Dunham Cowan Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and co-director of the Center for the Neural Basis for Cognition within the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She also conducted research at the Tepper School of Business.
"Mike, who I've worked with for years, is an incredibly forward-thinking and ambitious researcher," said Lebrecht. "He has continued to support both the research behind our product and this journey of commercialization. I couldn't have done it without him."
As she and Tarr, her Neon co-founder, began exploring commercialization, they reached out to university resources for assistance, as well as the National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps.
"Everybody's given us so much help," exclaimed Lebrecht. "Babs Carryer, for example, who was, at the time, with Project Olympus and also my Innovation Corps mentor, introduced us to folks within CMU and the alumni network."
"And the Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation (CTTEC) has also been incredibly helpful," she continued, "providing much more than just help with licensing the technology. They gave advice and guidance and provided financial support that bridged us until we raised our venture funding."
In an unprecedented move, Lebrecht relocated to CMU's Silicon Valley campus to build the company — now with a team of ten, four with CMU ties — in the thick of the online video industry. The move also allowed fortunate CMU Master of Entertainment Industry Management students there to work with Neon as a capstone project.
"CMU very much wants to support the growth of companies from technology being developed on campus," explained Lebrecht. "We reached out to the Silicon Valley campus and asked to incubate there — the first company to do that — and have had a tremendous experience with that community."
And importantly, they secured venture capital funding, which Lebrecht also credits, in part, to her CMU network.
"Finding funding is relationship-based, as well," she noted. "You can't just email a venture fund. That connection comes from an introduction."
"The whole thing with commercializing research is that you can't do it by yourself," she added. "You rely on a network of people. For team building, for meeting potential employees, for finding customers, for connecting with alumni working in industry, for mentorship, for learning about things you don't know and for much more — that network is crucial and we found that at CMU."
Additional support for this research was provided by the NSF's Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center.