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SleepTech: What are VCs looking for?

SleepTech

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It may be ironic, but new research suggests wearables and trackers devised to solve sleep problems, might actually be causing them. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in the US.

In a nutshell, the study concludes that using sleep devices can make the user over-conscious of any sleep problems, stress them out and make them feel poorly rested.

“The claims of these devices really outweigh validation of what they have shown to be doing,” said the report’s lead author, psychologist Kelly Glazer Baron. One reason for this, according to Baron, is the data is not reliable.

Unreliable data

The data produced by sleep devices can be misleading, according to Baron. She cited the example of a woman in her study who, despite getting a sufficient amount of sleep the night before as determined in a laboratory test that measures brain waves, said she felt unrested because her Fitbit showed otherwise.

There was a clear conflict between the data produced by the laboratory test and the sleep device. And according to Baron, this is true for a lot of technology that is meant to assist in sleeping. For example, some products may think that a user is sleeping when actually they are reading in bed. And others do not differentiate between light and deep sleep.

But it’s not just Baron that has these views. Last year a sleep scientist at Harvard Medical School pointed out that unreliable data is the one big flaw in all sleep tech devices. Speaking to Business Insider, Patrick Fuller said this kind of technology relies on information from human behaviour – like movement – to determine a user’s sleep pattern instead of getting that information directly from the brain. But the only way to accurately diagnose and fix a sleep problem is to rely on data from the brain, which is something he said sleep apps can’t do.

Sleep tech boom?

Investor behaviour in the UK over the last few years, however, suggests VCs are not worried by the findings of studies like Baron’s.

One area of sleep tech that has attracted a lot of funding in the UK is hi-tech mattresses. It may seem strange to call a mattress company a tech startup, but in order to develop its groundbreaking mattress, London-based Simba Sleep worked with the US-based Sleep to Live Institute, an organisation that uses science and technology to help manufacturers develop better products. Together they tested the mattress using more than 180 million body profile data points and the profiles of more than 10 million people.

Simba closed a £9m investment round in February this year, bringing the total to £17.5m. Investors include the founders of Innocent drinks, British financier Michel de Carvalho and Richard Goldstein (whose family founded Superdrug).

Its competitor Eve Sleep, which is also based in London, raised £14m from investors last year, including from Channel 4, hedge fund manager Neil Woodford and former Capita CEO Paul Pindar.

Another sleep tech product, smart pillow ZEEQ that plays music, monitors snoring, analyses sleep patterns and acts as an alarm clock, successfully raised a more modest $400,000 (£326,000) in a Kickstarter campaign that closed in August last year.

Eve Sleep

Between its launch in early 2015 and today, Eve has sold over 45,000 mattresses, according to the ticker on its website.

So what is it about the startup that attracted such high-flying investors? It’s the fact its product stands out, according to co-founder, Kuba Wieczorek.

“Eve’s simple proposition to investors was to disrupt the sleep market by using technology to create the perfect product and buying experience,” he said.

Eve uses the latest tech in machinery to fold its mattresses into a compact box and its website means customers can buy the product directly from the company.

“Our investors recognised this simple, sleep-saving proposition from the get go and our early investors have stuck with us through three funding rounds,” he adds.

BrainTrain 20:20

In 2016, Edinburgh-based Mercia Fund Management invested £485,000 in BrainTrain 20:20. The company trialled its first product, SleepCogni, at Sheffield Hallam University and is set to launch publicly this year. The device helps ease users into sleep by measuring heart rate, skin temperature and blood oxygen levels. It uses that data to deliver tailored cognitive behaviour therapy using light and sound to help put the user to sleep.

But if research suggests sleep technology may not actually help customers, why did Mercia choose to invest in BrainTrain? According to Dr Ashish Patel, investment manager at Mercia, it’s because BrainTrain “provides solutions”.

Dr Patel said: “A lot of the technology just monitors what’s going on, and doesn’t actually give people a solution. But the reason we were attracted to BrainTrain was because there are a few technologies that actually provide non-pharmacological intervention which help patients change their behaviour. BrainTrain is a solution to problems, instead of just another monitoring device.”

As an investor in sleep technology, Patel says he is “not interested in monitoring devices”.

The verdict

What investors are looking for, it seems, is a product that sets itself apart – something truly innovative. Whether that’s the reinvention of a rather boring and traditional product, like Simba and Eve have done with mattresses, or something that offers a solution.

What’s for certain is the appetite for products designed to improve sleep is very high, so there’s now the potential for startups innovating in this space to well and truly cash in.

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