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March 30, 2021

Podcast 117: Kernel CEO Bryan Johnson on Technology to Measure the Brain & Studying Sleep

This week’s podcast guest is Bryan Johnson, Founder and CEO of Kernel, a groundbreaking company building technology to measure brain activity.

By Will Ahmed

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Bryan Johnson is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the last decade. His company Braintree acquired Venmo for $26 million in 2012 and then sold for $800 million a year later. Bryan then took $54 million of his own money to found Kernel.

Kernel is a groundbreaking company that is building technology that measures the activity of your brain. They are developing hardware the likes of which the consumer market has never seen before, all with a goal to help humanity gain a much greater understanding of the inner workings of the brain.

The team at Kernel recently did a fascinating study with WHOOP that showed a direct correlation between sleep and impulse control. They found that the more sleep people got, the more the brain was actively engaged in the participant’s willpower.

This is a discussion about the future of technology and what we hope to learn about the great mystery that is the brain. Stay healthy and stay in the green!

 

Kernel CEO Bryan Johnson Podcast Show Notes:

2:47 – Bryan’s Mission. Bryan says a two-year trip to Ecuador opened his eyes to the struggles of many in the world and inspired him to become an entrepreneur. “I felt this burning desire to try to do something in life that would be meaningfully relevant for other people. … The plan I came up with was I would become an entrepreneur and try to make some money and with that capital then afford myself the chance in the future of being able to do something meaningful for a large number of people. It was difficult for me, at the age of 21, to figure out the singular thing I could do with no resources.”

5:08 – Finding Yourself. “My experience in the world is I feel like I don’t belong anywhere. I’m an odd duck. I’m not easily categorizable. I’m not a certain archetype,” Bryan says. “That’s a convenient starting place for an entrepreneur because so much of starting something new is putting yourself in a position to not fit in,” Will adds.

6:15 – From Rags to Riches. Bryan details his life before starting Braintree. “I was in the middle of a venture that was not going well. I had racked credit card debt with multiple credit cards. I was basically living on $2,000 a month being married and having one child. We would go on one date a week and spend $7.50. That was our budget. … I couldn’t make ends meet and provide for the young family I had started.”

9:56 – Hitting it Big. Bryan acquired Venmo for $26 million in 2012. He turned around and sold Braintree Venmo to PayPal for $800 million in 2013. “I grew up poor. My mom made my clothes for me. We just made do with what we had. And of course when I was starting businesses in my early 20’s and starting school, I never had money. I was always in debt. So when I sold it was the very first time in my life I had money.”

11:19 – Following Through on the Mission. “The offer we got for Braintree Venmo was sufficient to give me the amount of money to basically be in a permissionless game. I could now take that capital, I could survey the world, and I could choose to do almost anything. That was the freedom I had been looking for my entire life. It wasn’t, ‘Can I climb the Forbes list?’ It was to do something meaningful that matters not only for today, but would matter in 2050, 2100, and 2500.”

13:33 – Kernel. “We can measure and quantify basically everything in the known universe, except for our brains. We can’t do that on a regular basis. Wearing WHOOP gives me a tremendous amount of insight into my overall wellness, whether it’s my sleep, my HRV, my performance in my cardiovascular endeavors, but we don’t have that for the brain. So I started Kernel with the question of whether we could build a measurement device for the brain that would bring brain measurement into the mainstream.”

15:48 – Kernel Flow and Kernel Flux. Learn more about Kernel’s two products at kernel.com. “You can think of [Kernel Flow] as a WHOOP for the brain,” Bryan says. “We think we have created the most powerful brain interfaces ever built in terms of how they score in accessibility and quality of neural data. … What we hope will come from this is a new era of neuroscience insight for people where, just like how I now base my lifestyle on my WHOOP device, people will begin changing their lifestyle based upon their brain data.”

20:00 – Study with WHOOP on Sleep and Impulse Control. “What was interesting when we looked at the data, was my deep sleep, total sleep, and sleep latency with WHOOP was correlated with my willpower,” Bryan says.

25:50 – What We Can Learn With Neural Data. Bryan cites a 2011 Emory University study that suggested that teenage brain activity measured while listening to music could serve as a predictor of the popularity of hit songs in the future. “We imagine our conscious selves are the authority. When I spoke, I’m the authority for Bryan and what I say is fully true to Bryan. But as we get more and more data, it’s going to change and we’re going to understand that there’s other stuff going on in our minds that we’re unaware of that is potentially more accurate, potentially more authoritative, and potentially different versions of ourselves. It’s going to be a fundamental shift in society.”

29:43 – Brain Measuring Technology Impacting Humanity. Bryan discusses ways future technology could help humans alter their lives. For example, he suggests technology and algorithms could help people train their brains to overcome phobias. “I’m hypothesizing … but we’ll start reimagining how we go about improving the things we find undesirable about ourselves and amplifying the things we find desirable.”

36:00 – How Kernel is Being Used. “We have some of the best academic institutions in the world who are receiving their [Kernel] device. They’re looking at things like [traumatic brain injury] concussion, stroke, aging of the brain, lucid dreaming, meditation, meditation assistance, psychedelics, about 20 or so different areas.”

37:23 – Meal Timing and Sleep Quality. Bryan discusses how he used WHOOP to discover the best way to optimize his sleep. “My last meal of the day is the most consequential factor for my sleep quality. I tested all the way from about 2 hours before bed and now I have my final meal by about 9 am or so. Before I go to bed, I have about a 13-hour fast going on.”

37:53 – Singing to Increase HRV. “I find that when I sing before I go to bed, my HRV improves. Last night, I was singing with a group of friends for 30 minutes and my HRV improved by 17 percent. … That’s the fun of having measurement. I get to try something new every day and I get to fine tune myself every single day. WHOOP has allowed me to improve myself at a speed I’ve never been able to do before.”

43:26 – Using WHOOP. “[WHOOP has] changed my life. It was the critical thing that enabled me to get my [crap] together.”

Connect with Bryan on Twitter.

 

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised $400 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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