Everyone knows the feeling: a jolt of attention that heightens your senses in a crowded room, looking over the edge of a tall structure, during an important moment in a sports event, or when startled by an unexpected sound. It’s a central component of a biological response—our bodies are hardwired in this scenario to, among other things, sharpen their senses in response to stimuli.

This reaction, or more precisely, the effects—heightened eyesight, hearing, and touch—lay the foundation for Charles Rodenkirch, PhD, and his company Shaper Sense. Rodenkirch joined Cornell Tech’s Runway Startups program, part of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, in 2021.

A biomedical engineer by training, with an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and doctorate from Columbia University, Rodenkirch quickly gravitated toward research that focused on our sensory hub – the brain – where touch, sight, smell, sound, and taste are processed and translated into information the human body can understand.

“‘How and why are your senses more accurate when you’re attentive and alert?’ was a central question I wanted to explore,” he shared in an interview. During his doctoral research, he focused on neural interfaces and analysis to investigate how the state of a person’s brain – calm, tired, or aroused, for example – affects sensory processing.

Deconstructing the Brain’s Circuitry

Sharper Sense, the company he founded and leads, is a natural progression from this initial research enterprise. Put simply, he sought to understand the brain’s ability to enhance sensory acuity in response to critical situations or attention-grabbing stimuli and find a way to replicate that beneficial state in a predictable and sustainable manner.

“It’s a well known phenomenon—what’s changing in the brain that allows for that rapid enhancement?” he says. “We teased apart the neural circuitry responsible for that and now have developed Sharper Sense’s main product, a piece of wearable technology, which activates that circuitry on-demand to drive that benefit when it’s needed.”

He’s created the ability to engage a heightened sensory state on demand. Instead of requiring an adrenaline-fueled situation to unlock this state, Sharper Sense’s technology engages a nerve that causes release of a neurochemical that drives this sensory benefit. The result: keener hearing, sharper eyesight, and faster sensory cognition.

One might immediately leap to a sports application – the ability to see a curveball earlier, or the serve off a tennis racket. And, indeed, Sharper Sense is working with ComcastNBC SportsTech, NASCAR, and US Ski and Snowboard to test this approach to help athletes see and feel changes in the playing field, snow texture, and communicate clearly with teammates, or practice at a higher level when fatigued–a state where misperceptions are more likely. However, Rodenkirch also seeks to make a profound difference in the life of everyday people. Namely, those experiencing age-related diminished hearing and vision, and individuals who have sensory impairment from neurological disorders like ADHD. Sharper Sense is currently testing its technology for improving speech comprehension which is a critical component of learning, independence, and social interaction.

Cornell Tech as a Catalyst

When Rodenkirch joined the Cornell Tech Runway program, which included pre-seed funding to help him accelerate progress, he was able to build an experimental lab and run first-in-human testing. This package, equivalent to $175,000 in the first year and $102,000 in the second, includes a salary, research budget, housing allowance, IP registration, and access to education and facilities. Within the first month of joining the program, Sharper Sense was able to raise additional venture capital from Joyance Partners and Social Starts. Today, two years later, participation in the program has culminated in a major article published in Nature Scientific Reports, with significant opportunity ahead:

“We’ve already started testing in our first two clinical indications that we’re targeting, which are age-related hearing loss and adult ADHD. We already have some early data from older adults showing we can enhance their speech comprehension amidst overhead noise, and we’ll have results around adults with ADHD in the near future.”

A lifelong entrepreneur, Rodenkirch built a smartphone repair business while in college, perhaps spurred by watching his mother, an advertising executive, launch her own firm when he was a child. He credits Cornell Tech’s focus and mandate toward innovation and technology transfer as a change agent in his journey:

“The campus itself is linked in with businesses and the city. I had the chance to give closing remarks at a Bloomberg x Cornell event, which opened the doors to key contacts and funders. And Cornell Tech is extremely founder-friendly in terms of the funding offered, facilities, and regulatory and research support, and the entire infrastructure is designed to facilitate the transfer of technology into the business environment. MBAs are right there with the engineers, and in a co-working space like what Cornell Tech offers, we’re constantly helping one another – that informal discourse and collaboration is essential and helps expand our collective knowledge. You can ask fellow founders about HR or payroll systems, and flatten the learning curve as much as possible.”

Indeed, launching a new company is a daunting task. Beyond the core and proprietary research, which has been much of Rodenkirch’s life’s work, there are business pitches, building new research projects, and the need to navigate large and complex bureaucracies. Even a recent breakfast hosted by Cornell Tech during which former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Patti Harris met with the institute’s most successful startup founders. The main constant, he says, is that there will always be new problems to solve, many of which you’ve never incurred before.

“Cornell Tech’s Runway program gave me the confidence to ask the question: ‘Who else knows this technology better – who can describe this and convey what it’s doing?’” he says. “Now I have the skills, advisors, and network to do it. And for Cornell Tech to do this for New York City, so technology and companies stay here in the city, it’s a critical catalyst for the start-up and technology economy.”