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The Sitdown: Jason Sherwin, with baseball on the brain, launches Neuroscout

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Updated: September 4, 2014 6:03AM



Jason Sherwin grew up in Rogers Park playing baseball, rooting for the Cubs, playing piano and writing music, and being influenced by his sports-fanatic mom, Judith, who coached his Orthodox Jewish Little League team. His scholarly dad, the Rabbi Byron Sherwin, is a professor at Spertus Institute and author of dozens of books and articles in Jewish studies. The 31-year-old alum of Anshe Emet Day School and The Latin School, earned his bachelor’s in physics and music from the University of Chicago and both his master’s and doctorate of philosophy in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University in New York, whose new focus is entrepreneurship and Moneyball 2.0 was featured on the home page of Scientific American magazine’s website, for his startup firm. He co-founded Neuroscout with PhD candidate Jordan Muraskin, aiming to sell a new method of brain research to professional athletes. He is engaging prospective clients — professional baseball and basketball teams he’s not yet willing to identify.

My mom has always been a Trekkie, watching Star Trek with her friends in Hyde Park. I grew up watching “Apollo 13” and “From the Earth to the Moon.” I was interested in making stuff like the inventor in “Back to the Future” who made the time machine. When I was 10 or 11, my mom was reading “HyperSpace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the 10th Dimension.” I really got into it.

We were practicing living on Mars [while at Georgia Tech]. It was like living in a two-story tuna can, about 30 feet in diameter. I lived there with my research adviser — the commanding officer — and four other engineering students for two and a half weeks. We put on simulated space suits. The ATVs were like our dune buggies. I was the radiation officer. Someone else was navigation officer.

Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX) funded the observatory we used there. It was a totally barren landscape. But it just happened that Country Music Television was producing the show “Small Town Secrets” in the closest town, Hanksville, Utah, and they came and filmed us.

[With Neuroscout] I had been studying neuro-imaging — in particular, imaging brain activity while people made quick perceptual decisions, in which they responded immediately to something they saw or heard.

I started with a study of professional musicians who listened to their own instrument being played and heard a mistake in the performance. The study compared their response to someone who doesn’t play an instrument.

We saw brain activity reflective of motor areas where they would have made that mistake or done that sort of unexpected movement. They were responding neurally faster and stronger than the nonmusicians. We traced it back to a physical connection. They were making a brain response like they were moving.

We said, ‘hey, we should see if we could get the baseball players to do this.’ Moneyball was spreading to all other sports. But in today’s sports analytics, everything is measured after the fact — after the player takes the shot or hits the ball.

We wanted to get a shot of how the player got there in the first place. Why is this the swing trajectory? Why did the player decide to make this pass and not take that shot? Instead of looking at behavior, we wanted to look at the neuro aspect. The question was whether the sports world was ready for that. Was there enough for them to benefit from?

We did a small study with baseball players at Columbia. We reported the results to a sports analytics conference in March 2013 at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Mark Cuban and Nate Silver were there. Phil Jackson was at the 2014 conference. We got selected as a finalist. We started making connections in the sports world.

That momentum kept going.

The Neuroscout working prototype uses a cap — it’s like a Speedo swim cap with a Medusa-like mess of wires coming out of it — that baseball players would eventually wear in a wireless version underneath their helmets to practice and better understand their performance.

Signals from the cap — the players put a dab of EEG gel in their hair to improve the signal — are read by a software algorithm to create a neuro profile while the players are making decisions under time pressure — looking at pitches and deciding in a split second whether they are strikes, balls, curveballs, etc.

With a test of about 200 pitches, the batter gets a detailed map of when his brain started making a motor response. He can rebuild the profile and see how it is changing over time to track his progress.

Let’s say a batter is good at identifying inside pitches but not outside pitches. He can see how well his eye is seeing the trajectory so he can accommodate his swing. So he’s not just training the brain to be better; he’s also training the physical complement to the inner game. It’s a huge leg up.

We’re trying to raise $500,000 over the next 12 to 18 months to develop “Version 1” of the Neuroscout Baseball Profile.

Once we go into other sports, we want to make a profile that’s specific to each sport. NeuroScout Baseball will be our template.

If anything would make the Cubs win, I’m all for it.

Email: sguy@suntimes.com

Twitter: @sandraguy



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