CARLSBAD — Before becoming the co-founder and CEO of Advanced Brain Monitoring (ABM), Chris Berka was held back from advancing at her previous company all, she says, because of her gender.
Berka had begun her career at a Los Angeles company that researched and developed drug tests that used human hair.
She started with the company when it was founded and managed its biggest accounts for over a decade. But after being surpassed by seven other CEOs, she knew she would not be allowed to progress.
“Despite the fact that (the board) respected me, they were not willing to take a chance and let a woman run the company, and that was made pretty clear to me,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything about it and that was the biggest frustration.”
So Berka, a UCSD grad, quit and co-founded her own company sans glass ceiling.
Now almost 15 years later, Berka leads ABM in developing diagnostic devices that map out brain activity; ABM’s devices have the potential to serve a range of medical and educational needs, from detecting sleep issues to tracking engagement while learning to helping spinal cord injury patients regain hand function.
In 1999, Berka, co-founder Dan Levendowski and a couple of engineers established the company in Carlsbad, where it is still located, after receiving a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Under that initial grant, ABM worked to develop wireless headsets that monitor brain activity to detect drowsiness.
Berka said they aimed to take tools used in labs and “combine them into one really simple device that a patient can put on with simple instructions at home and do the diagnosis in the privacy of their own home.”
But after running trials with truck drivers, she and ABM developers realized that drowsiness was the symptom of sleep problems.
“The drowsiness monitoring devices was a bandaid for a gaping wound (of sleep issues),” Berka said.
So ABM turned its focus to developing a device that could diagnose sleep apnea in real time.
By 2004, ABM had developed and gained Federal Drug Administration approval for ARES (Apnea Risk Evaluation System), and eventually in 2009 Medicare agreed to reimburse for the device, allowing it to be sold more easily.
Since then, ABM has developed another wireless headset that monitors sleep quality and stages as well as an eye mask that creates an ideal napping environment with blue light, heat, and sound.
To diversify their research, ABM developed other wireless brain monitoring headsets to map out other types of brain activity.
Most recently, ABM has been working on using their wireless brain monitoring headsets to track how the human brain can rewire neuropathways after a spinal cord injury to regain movement in different parts of the body.
Currently, the University of Miami is using their headsets in conjunction with electronic stimulators in trial studies.
“Everybody thought if you don’t have any recovery of function within the first year after a spinal cord injury, that’s it,” said Berka.
But she explained that the University of Miami’s studies aim to show that with electronic stimulation, patients can restore function even 10 years after a spinal cord injury.
While ARES is the only ABM device out in the market, Berka said that she takes pride in the company’s potential to improve people’s lives — from restoring hand function for spinal cord injury patients to improving sleep for all people.
“That is the kind of thing that really makes me want to jump out of bed every day; making a real impact,” she said.
But she added, “Of course it never goes fast enough. When I talk about everything we’ve done over the past 15 years, it sounds like a lot. But you have no idea, for me, how agonizingly slow all of these things are. I just want it to go faster because you see the potential.”
And as for shattering that glass ceiling and securing her place as her own boss?
“It was fantastic,” she said.