Tinkering with the Master Control System

Laura Tyler Perryman engineers pain and disease management technology for human good

Rockets, amusement parks and the human body share a common element, says Laura Tyler Perryman (’88). They can all be broken down into control systems.
Her work today focuses on giving people who suffer from diabetes a better quality of life. Through her efforts to do this, she co-developed a groundbreaking device to help those who struggle with chronic pain.

Perryman is the CEO and co-founder of Stimwave, and co-inventor of the company’s nerve stimulator device, which she says can “help block pain signals from reaching the brain” when properly deployed. The Stimwave system is innovative not in what it does, but in how it does it. It’s a micro-sized implant powered by a small controller worn outside the body.

The Stimwave nerve stimulator.

“Other companies that existed before us have a very large device that’s about three or four times the size of a pacemaker, and has a battery in it. You have to implant it in the body through surgery, and you have to undergo general anesthesia for that to take place. Our device is so disruptive and unique because it fits through a needle, and slides in under local [anesthetic]. We leverage nanotechnology to create a very small device.”

The Food and Drug Administration approved the device for use in humans in early 2016 — just five years after Perryman co-founded the company with Patrick Larson, its vice president of research and development.

The stimulator operates totally passively; it has no internal energy source and does not require surgery. Given its passive nature, it has even been approved for use by active duty military personnel, Perryman says. “We were the first neuromodulation company to have a DoD [Department of Defense] contract because of the safety profile of the device.”

Head Start

An academic prodigy of sorts, Perryman graduated high school at 16 and started studying aeronautical engineering at Embry-Riddle’s Prescott Campus. As a young woman under the legal drinking age, she found few opportunities to socialize. She focused on her studies instead; took plenty of summer classes; and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree at 19.

“I went to Rocketdyne to work on control systems for their rocket engines, which is about the highest honor I could’ve received [upon graduation]. The Embry-Riddle curriculum gave me all the tools to succeed in every segment, starting there,” Perryman says. “The thing about an Embry-Riddle education is that it encourages innovation and thinking outside the box for solving complex, system-level problems.”

She went on to work at Walt Disney Imagineering and Rockwell Semiconductors in engineering and project management roles, and after 10 years working for Fortune 500 companies, migrated to more entrepreneurial environments with successful business startups and mergers. Perryman retired from industry work just 20 years after graduating from Embry-Riddle. It freed her up to focus on something that had been troubling her since her father passed away in 1987 from advanced-stage type 2 diabetes.

“The problem with diabetes is that it comes on rapidly. He deteriorated very fast,” she says. “There are a lot better medications now than in 1985-86, and earlier detection. People live longer than they used to, but it’s definitely not a good quality of life. That’s why I was looking into ways to help the body regulate its own insulin.”

Bodies as Machines

Examining closed-loop insulin control systems during her Ph.D. studies triggered her passion for determining how to change a machine’s response to an input. “It goes all the way back, even to my undergrad at Embry-Riddle. I was always focused on control systems,” Perryman says.

She was able to use the knowledge she gained throughout her career to develop with Larson a tiny dipole antenna that could receive electrical power wirelessly from an external control unit to generate desired neural responses.

Though managing diabetes was her motivation, a tactical change was necessary in order to create a viable product. “We saw that pain management had the largest number of users of electrical energy intervention. We thought this would be the fastest and easiest roadmap to get this device on the market,” Perryman says.

Pragmatism won the day, but Perryman still sees a lot of potential on the horizon for their technology. “We want to get this established as the standard in the industry. Then we’ll go on to research modalities like thyroid control that are less far along in solutions.”

Her advice to others searching for their professional niche: “The most important thing is to realize that you don’t have to be pigeonholed for an entire career with what you started out learning. You should learn something you’re super interested in, even though you might take that knowledge and apply it in a different way. You just have to be passionate about what you’re doing at the time that you’re doing it.”

Editor’s Note: In 2017, Perryman was inducted into the Prescott Campus Chancellor’s Hall of Fame.