How Neurotech Start-Ups Envision Ethical Futures: Demarcation, Deferral, Delegation

Sophia Knopf, Nina Frahm, Sebastian M. Pfotenhauer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Like many ethics debates surrounding emerging technologies, neuroethics is increasingly concerned with the private sector. Here, entrepreneurial visions and claims of how neurotechnology innovation will revolutionize society—from brain-computer-interfaces to neural enhancement and cognitive phenotyping—are confronted with public and policy concerns about the risks and ethical challenges related to such innovations. But while neuroethics frameworks have a longer track record in public sector research such as the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, much less is known about how businesses—and especially start-ups—address ethics in tech development. In this paper, we investigate how actors in the field frame and enact ethics as part of their innovative R&D processes and business models. Drawing on an empirical case study on direct-to-consumer (DTC) neurotechnology start-ups, we find that actors engage in careful boundary-work to anticipate and address public critique of their technologies, which allows them to delineate a manageable scope of their ethics integration. In particular, boundaries are drawn around four areas: the technology’s actual capability, purpose, safety and evidence-base. By drawing such lines of demarcation, we suggest that start-ups make their visions of ethical neurotechnology in society more acceptable, plausible and desirable, favoring their innovations while at the same time assigning discrete responsibilities for ethics. These visions establish a link from the present into the future, mobilizing the latter as promissory place where a technology’s benefits will materialize and to which certain ethical issues can be deferred. In turn, the present is constructed as a moment in which ethical engagement could be delegated to permissive regulatory standards and scientific authority. Our empirical tracing of the construction of ‘ethical realities’ in and by start-ups offers new inroads for ethics research and governance in tech industries beyond neurotechnology.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4
JournalScience and Engineering Ethics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2023


  • Direct-to-consumer neurotechnology
  • Knowledge-control regimes
  • Neuroethics
  • Responsible innovation
  • STS
  • Vanguard visions


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