The Kata Project

In the current economic environment, traditional sources of funding for biomedical research have become sorely limited. The NIH has all but admitted that it tends to foster conservative incremental research, especially when money is scarce. Outside the university-NIH axis, however, a whole new world is developing with enormous implications for funding biomedical and basic research by using innovative, non-traditional, approaches. For example, intellectual property developed within academia can be monetized by in-sourcing technological expertise as opposed to outsourcing the underlying IP.

Motor ability in the broadest sense is arguably the most appreciated aspect of human endeavor in modem society. Athletes, for example, are paid more than any other group of individuals – watching sport is essentially the appreciation of motor skill. The core feature of massively popular video-games (currently estimated to be a 65 billion dollar market) is to challenge motor skill and action selection.

The social and economic importance placed upon neurological motor injury is proportionately immense. Better understanding and treating traumatic brain injury in both amateur and professional athletes, for example, has recently taken on a new urgency with the recognition of the burden of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Neurological injury and disease affect the motor system more than any other with devastating consequences (stroke in the US is estimated to cost 43 billion dollars per year). Thus there is a “motor market”, greater than 100 billion dollars, that extends from athletes to healthy non-athletes to patients. Interestingly these three motor domains are rarely thought about in a unified manner; considering them a continuum with shared neural mechanisms and learning principles. Indeed, your average neurologist is not likely to have much knowledge of what is going on in the fields of artificial intelligence, motion capture, and interactive entertainment. This has led to a slightly archaic and frequently siloed approach to the study of motor control and neuro-rehabilitation in universities and medical schools.

We are at a revolutionary juncture where concepts in neurology and neuroscience can synergize with interactive entertainment and motion capture technology. We propose a new hybrid research and development model, for both the conduct and funding of scientific research and for technological innovation. The idea is to set up an institute, The Kata Institute, within university walls, combining the excellence of Johns Hopkins academics with the freewheeling creativity of the interactive entertainment and media technology worlds. This unique fusion of neuroscience and technology will recreate a university-based version of the innovative environments previously seen at Bell Labs and currently seen at MIT Media Lab, Googleplex, Apple, and Pixar. The Kata Institute will bring together domains of expertise rarely seen in the same physical space: young, imaginative, and elite engineers who are usually lost to a parallel universe outside of academia and neuroscientists and clinicians within the academy.

We believe the time is ripe for a new fusion between academia and industry. We will show that intellectual barriers are perceived rather than real and can be broken down. Critically the Kata model, by virtue of neuroscience innovations seamlessly translated into highly lucrative products in the entertainment industry, has the capacity to self-fund on the order of hundreds of millions: scientific ideas will lead to commercial technologies that can then be sold and licensed to fund further basic and clinical research. Johns Hopkins has the unique opportunity to rival MIT and Stanford in bridging two worlds that should no longer be kept apart in biomedical science.