Tech companies wake up to our desperate need for sleep
Sleep and tech are fast becoming inseparable bedfellows, but, beware, there are a lot of false claims out there
Sleep is under threat.
While shut-eye makes up close to a third of a person’s life, the amount of sleep experienced by many workers is falling. Among many Silicon Valley chief executives, a 5am start would qualify as a lie-in.
Early morning meetings and predawn exercise routines have become embedded in the working culture.
Previously, a lack of sleep among tech executives and bankers has been worn as a badge of honour.
But now some of the biggest names in the global technology industry, including Peter Thiel and Apple, are targeting your nighttime routine as a lucrative business opportunity.
That may come as no surprise. The sleep health and sleep aid industry was worth $50bn in 2016, and is expected to surge to $79bn by 2022.
Although the bulk of this remains sleeping pills and conventional medical devices, a growing list of companies are seeking to tap into the market with new apps and wearable devices based on advances in sleep technology.
It is no secret that consumers are willing to fork out big money for a better night’s sleep.
Supporters claim “sleep tech” is emerging as the next big trend in health and wellness market. But there are sceptics, too, who see the trend as little more than a fad.
“It is at the level of snake oil at the moment,” says Dr Neil Stanley, a sleep expert who has advised FTSE 100 health companies.
A lack of sleep is linked to everything from rising obesity to heart disease, and reduces life expectancy.
But with an increasing consumer trend of self-improvement, sleep is also becoming big business.
“We as a society are becoming more aware of the need for sleep,” says Julian Jagtenberg, CEO of sleep robot startup Somnox. “Once it was about nutrition and exercise. Now it is about sleep.”
Investment in sleep tech is reaching fever pitch. Dreem, a startup that makes a brain-sensing headband, raised $57m from investors last June.
Mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm, which offer meditation features designed to lull users to sleep, have together raised over $100m.
Big tech firms are also buying in with Apple and Fitbit pushing sleep tracking on their smartwatches.
Another device, the Motiv Ring smart ring, which claims to track and analyse your sleep, has raised $8m.
Meanwhile, big venture capitalists are waking up to the sleep trend.
Online mattress providers such as Casper Sleep have launched a fierce pillow fight against embattled incumbents. Casper raised a whopping $240m in 2017, while British mattress startup Simba raised £39m in 2018.
Apple also bought Beddit in 2017, a company that makes an under-mattress sleep monitor that links to a user’s smartphone to track sleep-time and heart rate.
These products are not just up for grabs for the Silicon Valley elite. Sleep aids are increasingly stocked in high-street stores.
Grace Gould, founder of School of the Digital Age (Soda), an online tech store, claims sleep devices are “absolutely huge”.
“It is one of our biggest categories,” she says.
Despite the demand, Soda only stocks a handful of sleep-related products. These include Dodow, a small blue-light projector that beams light on to a user’s ceiling.
Users breathe in and out as the circle grows and fades, down to six breaths a minute when they should nod off.
There are plenty of sceptics, however. With so much tech promising to cure insomnia, snoring and other sleep-related problems, some operators are making lofty promises about technology that may not actually work.
“There are so many products that say they can measure or track your sleep that do not work,” Gould says.
“Our creative director was testing one of these products, which has now gone out of business. She had to get up at times to look after her son in the night, but the product still said she had 98% good sleep.”
While many sleep-tech startups tout medical credentials or studies supporting their inventions, not everyone is convinced.
“99% of what these companies are saying is pure and simple marketing,” says Dr Stanley. “People are out there making outrageous claims without any scientific backing.”
According to Dr Stanley, while some sleep tech companies offer little more than a placebo, which may or may not make people feel better, others that claim to be medically proven may be on dicier legal ground.
“I see it as wholly concerning. People are now going to their doctors to say they have insomnia because their smartwatch has told them to,” Dr Stanley says.
And not all reviewers are convinced of the benefits of sleep tech.
The Dreem headband claims to help users sleep through meditative sounds and phrases to lull them into sleep.
“Dreem is supposed to help boost your sleep quality, and if wearing uncomfortable sensors doesn’t bother you, then you can drop $500 on it now,” Melanie Ehrenkranz wrote on tech site Gizmodo.
“But as I’m writing this, I’m exhausted.”
Despite the scepticism, a growing number of startups believe they can cure sleep problems.
Somnox designs a sleep robot that users cradle like a pillow. The robot appears to “breathe” in and out to match the user and send them to sleep.
“It synchronises to the user to reduce anxiety,” says Jagtenberg, Somnox’s founder.
“We are there to help people who feel stressful. The robot can reduce that.”
Jagtenberg says the Somnox has been tested with 120 patients at Reiner de Graaff Hospital in Delft, the Netherlands, and was shown to improve sleep quality, although it has yet to perform a full clinical trial.
For Somnox, sleep tech could be beneficial to those living with pain or with anxiety to help them sleep better, but more study is needed to prove most sleep technology as medically ready.
And while we appear to be enjoying a boom in sleep-related investment, venture capital investments always pose a risk. Hello, a startup founded by young British entrepreneur James Proud, shut down in 2017 after raising more than $40m of funding for its $149 “Sense” sleep monitor.
While hi-tech gizmos attract headlines and major funding deals lead business pages, it is perhaps some of the more low key sleep-tech initiatives that can have the most impact.
Alison Gardiner cofounded Sleep Station in 2012. The counselling app uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help people overcome insomnia.
Gardiner says much insomnia is a “perception-based problem. People don’t actually have the physical inability to sleep, but it is thoughts and behaviours”.
Sleep Station is one of only two apps recommended by NHS Digital. The talking therapy can help users overcome their difficulties sleeping.
While fancy tech solutions may work for some, Gardiner says sleep can be too important to put down to a cure-all product.
“When people cannot sleep it can have a drastic impact on their life,” she says, “but if it is high cost it may not be very ethical. We don’t recommend any products for sale for our patients.”
While the science may still be in the works, for now it seems like demand from the wellness-obsessed is firmly on the side of sleep-tracking tech.
– © The Daily Telegraph