Engineering background led graduate into a new arena -- brain research

Aug 21, 2014

“I liked the idea of applying what I learned right away through the co-op program.”

In the foothills of San Francisco and the shadows of Silicon Valley, Matt Gaidica '10 was surrounded by prospective millionaires trying to become billionaires. Engulfed by the Northern California landscape, enchanting Pacific Coast climate and passionate like-minded people, Gaidica thought he was living his version of the American dream.

“We had four guys in a 700 square foot apartment and we were doing the typical Silicon Valley thing - writing code all day,” Gaidica said. “We were having a good time. We were able to network with anyone and everyone.”

Gaidica lived down the street from the Instagram headquarters when they sold to Facebook for $1 billion. It was the kind of transaction that startups dream about and work diligently toward. It’s the nature of the industry, developers build viable products, grow the number of users until their technology is noticed by larger companies and are bought out for large amounts of capital. It’s a cycle that Gaidica found himself in, but one that he was utterly disenchanted by.

Matt Gaidica '10

Related:

“Is building a photo-sharing application really what you want your life’s work to be? Or even what you want the next 10 years to be? For me the answer was no,” Gaidica said.

So Gaidica packed up his car with everything he owned and began a 2,400 mile journey from Northern California back to Northville, Michigan. With a microphone hooked up to dictation software on the laptop next to him, he began speaking his mind aloud, charting out the next chapter of his life.

Entrepreneurship at Kettering

Gaidica was born on the east side of Detroit and graduated from high school in Northville where his interest in science grew through the FIRST Robotics program. Bosch was the sponsor of his robotics team and a Kettering University graduate was his corporate mentor.

“My favorite mentor went to Kettering, so I got it in my head that if he went there, then it’s good enough for me,” Gaidica said. “I liked the idea of applying what I learned right away through the co-op program.”

Gaidica graduated from Kettering in 2010 with a degree in Electrical Engineering and completed his co-op at the electromagnetic compatibility lab at Bosch in Plymouth and Farmington Hills. The co-op placement provided him the freedom and opportunity to experiment with state of the art hardware and software which helped the lay the foundation for his entrepreneurial pursuits.

“It was a great company, and great lab for an electrical engineer to be in,” Gaidica said. “I stayed at Bosch for my entire co-op and I also did my thesis there.”

Gaidica’s thesis explored the possibility of creating a robotic arm that automated electrostatic testing (a test that makes sure your airbag doesn’t deploy if lightning were to strike the car) but it was his involvement in the Kettering Entrepreneur Society (KES) the year before that sparked a larger journey.

In 2011, Gaidica partnered with his friend Brad Birdsall at Kettering to form a company based around a small hardware project they both conceived, but soon realized circuit boards are “tough to make and tough to sell.” They “pivoted” with a slight hesitation and began focusing entirely on software.

Birdsall translated his mechanical design skills and became an expert at creating web interfaces, and Gaidica stayed behind the scenes as an engineer writing code and managing databases and servers. After establishing a substantial client portfolio, the duo took off eight months and created Landr – an online mobile tool that simplifies websites on mobile devices.

“At this point, we take for granted this mobile shift of everything transferring from desktop to mobile and tablet,” Gaidica said. “What our software did, it took regular web pages and scaled them down to the mobile size. The novelty was the interface with the customer. We did things that made it super fast and simple. This was just when people started understanding the whole mobile thing.”

They were talented, driven, ambitious and now they had a novel product that they felt had market value. But that market was small in Michigan, the excitement and demand was out west in California.

Living and Leaving the Silicon Valley Life

Gaidica moved to Mountain View, California, in the backyard of tech giants Google, LinkedIn and dozens of others.

“We plopped down there and spent four months writing code,” Gaidica said.

They were able to sell Landr and received seed-funding from a new friend who knew how to navigate the Bay Area startup arena. They began working on an education-based application intended for college students. The goal was to extract data about a student from a course syllabus and search for interesting connections. Who's in their new class? What are the best deals on their textbooks? Who took this class last semester? Gaidica’s role was to take the physical syllabus and convert it from a piece of paper to data in a database, which involved crowdsourcing, image processing algorithms and manipulating large data sets.

“It was a lot of fun, but my attitude towards work was changing,” Gaidica said. “In Silicon Valley, you have a lot of smart people, but they are often not working on problems that are global in scale, or altruistic in any way. So much talent was going into projects with the aim of just making money. That’s the bubble - it sucks you in.”

After the initial excitement wore off, Gaidica made the bold decision to resign from the start-up and pursue a different algorithm-based machine that wasn’t a computer but a keystone for human health – the brain.

“I felt like I was missing out. I packed up and wished everyone well. I knew there were other problems I wanted to tackle,” Gaidica said. “Computer programmers always use the brain as a model for developing algorithms because it’s so efficient. Working directly with this enigmatic organ was a perfect fit for my background, abilities and my growing need to make an impact to those really in need.”

Gaidica had previously presented at TEDxFlint on the brain and artificial intelligence, and had always been an avid reader of the latest books on the human mind. He had established a foundation for a future in the field, but it wasn’t until his journey home that the pursuit became real.

The Next Step

In April 2014, Gaidica published, Left: A History of the Hemispheres, a project he started nearly a year and a half earlier. The non-fiction book chronicles the history of conflict between the left and right sides of the brain, delving into everything from medical history to ancient culture, and from religion to the beginnings of the cosmos.

“Writing this book was a huge creative outlet. It was the transition from engineering to the sciences. Engineers think about how to do things, scientists think about why those things are being done” Gaidica said. “It was a year off to just think, and I am convinced you have to let your mind drift into these places from time to time.”

Writing was also highly valuable to Gaidica as he entered interviews to graduate programs - the next step - having acquired a vast knowledge of a very specific area of science, and a newly formed vocabulary all concerning the brain. It was during his application process that he became engaged in a neurology lab at the University of Michigan doing research on Parkinson’s Disease. He was in charge of building a laser system that sends light into the brain, turning brain circuits on and off as if they were on a light switch (called “optogenetics”). Along with optics and software, he was designing 3D-printed brain implants for recording brain activity from the deep brain centers affected in Parkinson’s Disease.

Gaidica recently accepted his offer to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Michigan, which will eventually confer him a doctorate degree. In summer 2014, he began a summer research project in the neurosurgery department, giving him the opportunity to work in the operating room. He is interested in Deep Brain Stimulation, which entails placing an electrode into a patient’s brain and firing small electrical pulses to control the disabling effects of late-stage Parkinson’s Disease.

“We can see an uncontrollable tremor of the hands and arms completely go away within a couple minutes,” Gaidica said. “All the while, we are recording brain activity, and applying that data to research which can improve these types of operations and our understanding of this disease.”

Much like he was in Silicon Valley, Gaidica is working with top-tier technology and people, and positively compares the laboratory environment with what he experienced in start-ups in California. The difference this time is the fulfillment he’s getting as he attempts to solve large-scale problems that directly benefit patients and society at large.

“I just got back from extracting a brain from a cadaver today from a body that was donated to scientific research. I got to hold it in my hands.” Gaidica said.

And about his adventure into the world of science, health, medicine, and research as a whole, Gaidica said - “everything else is nothing compared to this.”


Written By Pardeep Toor | Contact: Patrick Hayes - phayes@kettering.edu - (810) 762-9639