Not just another hardware company, Circadia is building a sleep technology platform that it hopes will transform sleep and digital health.
We visited Circadia’s London offices and sat down to talk with CEO and co-founder Fares Siddiqui.
You may have read in the news that the sleep technology industry is booming. Fares Siddiqui agrees but he also says the market is in a mess;
“Sleep technology itself is booming [but] sleep tracking technology is actually all over the place. Apple have acquired Beddit. Hello Sense going bust. Just look at the Fitbit stock price over the last five years and you’ll see where it’s going.
So it makes you think; sleep trackers are going down, but then the sleep aids industry is still projected for double digit growth year on year until 2020 and we’re looking at an $80Billion market. So what is going wrong?”
One of the problems is that despite the huge potential market for sleep aid technologies, the vast majority of sleep trackers are in essence, just measurement tools;
“So, the issue with sleep tracking in general is that there is this first wave or first generation of over simplistic tracking technology,.. [but] no one gets information on how they can actually improve their sleep.
It’s clear that trackers are not sleep aids, and what we’re focused on is a system that combines sleep tracking with the therapy and the diagnostics as part of the loop so that it becomes a sleep aid.”
Having already caught the attention of sleep industry giants like Fitbit, Samsung, and Casper, Circadia recently raised over $200k on Kickstarter (now at In Demand at Indiegogo) the product itself consists of a contactless sleep tracker that lives in your bedroom, a portable LED light therapy lamp and a smartphone app.
Circadia uses clinical-grade sleep analytics to create a model of your internal body clock. Machine learning algorithms can then create a personalized sleep therapy plan using the science of light therapy.
So how and why did the founders decide to use light as a means to improve sleep quality?
The journey to Circadia
Circadia began with a personal connection – Siddiqui suffers from delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) – a circadian rhythm disorder which affects around 15% of the population.
DSPS causes a shift in your body clock, making it hard to fall asleep and wake up at ‘standard’ social time. Unable to sleep til 3 or 4am, the founder tried behavioural methods – sleep hygiene and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – to little avail.
So, with degrees in mechanical engineering and product design, and a hobbyist and maker’s mindset, Siddiqui set about trying to build a solution for his sleep problems.
The Circadia project began as a mood lamp that would sync with your phone. But the breakthrough moment came when they showed the prototype to an acquaintance:
“And so, I built this prototype of a lamp and then I bumped into an acquaintance of mine who was doing a Ph.D. from Oxford in Circadian Rhythms. And he mentioned, that light and the colour of light affects our circadian rhythm, and obviously like everyone else, I thought, that’s a placebo, it can’t be true.
And then when I dug into three months of literature research and spoke to professors all around the world, I figured that, you know, this isn’t a placebo.”
Light therapy (also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy) is a clinically recognized treatment for a range of medical conditions including depression, SAD and circadian rhythm disorders such as DSPS. As the CEO explains;
“There’s a reason why we feel happy on a sunny day and we feel gloomy when it’s dark outside, and there’s a biological reason behind it. And the reason is that light is the single biggest external factor which affects our body clock, and our body clock controls the release of hormones such as melatonin which makes us drowsy and cortisol which keeps us alert, as well as dopamine and others.
But it also controls the sleep-wake cycle and that was the – that was the tipping point. That’s when we said ‘Okay we’re gonna use light to help preset the body clock’. So if you provide light at a certain time of the day, of a certain wavelength, for a certain duration of exposure, you can begin to reset an individual’s body clock.”
The Circadia light therapy lamp
The team tried out various form factors and prototypes but eventually settled on disk-shape for both the tracker and the lamp.
“We could have made a light bulb. We could have made a desk lamp. Why didn’t you make one? The answer is we made those prototypes, we tested them. But then we settled on this new product archetype because we realized we’re not a lighting company we’re a sleep company making a therapy product so we need to follow what science says, what the human biology says.
“So the angle the device is placed at, the intensity, the wavelength of light, the duration of exposure, these are all very important variables used to design this product from first principles. “
Siddiqui demonstrated the lamp in action, and under the strip lighting of the basement office the brightness had an immediately noticeable effect;
“So yes, the LEDs are basically picked according to what biological parameters we need to reset the circadian rhythm. There are two things to remember, there’s one which is preventing your body clock or your circadian rhythm from being shifted -Apple Night Shift, Flux, all those programs do that, with blue light filters.
But then you need, you actually need a device that can actively cause the shifting. And that’s what this is biologically tuned to do. So the wavelength of the LEDs we have selected is biologically tuned to do that.”
A neat aspect of the design process at Circadia is the way the technology is designed to work slickly in the background.
While you’re in bed, the contactless sensor gathers your sleep data. The algorithms then analyse and devise a personalised light schedule for you. The phone app will then tell you when you need to plug in the lamp for your next shot of ‘visual caffeine.’ Siddiqui explains;
“You get push notifications, which gives you your lights schedule. Its as simple as you connecting the device… if you hit the first button and as long as it’s connected to your Wifi, it will provide the right light at that time of the day.”
.. we value design a lot and so the reason we’re doing that is because people of the older age bracket can find it difficult to open their phone, especially people at care homes for example. And we want to target that age bracket as well, so that it’s as simple as pressing one button and that’s it.”
Contactless sleep sensor
OK, so that’s the lamp – what about the sleep sensor? After months testing competitor’s products the Siddiqui along with fellow co-founder Michal Maslik settled on a contactless sensor, that doesn’t rely on having to wear anything in bed.
The tracker can be either wall mounted or sit on your bedside table and detects heart-rate, breathing, chest, limb and general body movement, snoring and environmental temperature and humidity sensing.
Although Circadia uses a similar type of radar technology to the popular Resmed S+ sleep tracker, Siddiqui assures me their device differs considerably. It works up to 8 feet away from your body and can also do multi-person tracking with one device.
There’s also a built-in speaker and wake-up light so you can program a smart alarm to wake you in the optimal stage of light sleep, or automatically stream your favourite Spotify tunes when you wake up.
In light of the recent launch of Dreem, another advanced sleep tracker, I asked Siddiqui whether he thought it was necessary to have EEG (brain activity) tracking in order to accurately measure and diagnose sleep problems.
“I completely disagree with that. In a PSG [polysomnography] study you don’t just attach EEG sensors. You attach EOG, EKG, ECG, EMG, you look at your respiratory efforts; you look at your Sp02 levels.
I’ll give you an example. So there’s three big sleep problems. Number one is the most common one which is insomnia. Number two is the most undiagnosed one, which is sleep apnea, and then the third one is delayed sleep phase syndrome, including jet lag and social jet lag, etc.
Now, if you look at how insomnia is assessed and diagnosed to this day, it’s done through questionnaires. You don’t need brain wave technology to diagnose if someone has insomnia or not. With regards to sleep apnea, yes you can get an understanding of what is happening to their sleep stages by looking at their brain waves. But to detect sleep apnea you need to actually understand someone’s breathing rate and their heart variabilities.
.. the final thing which is, delayed sleep phase syndrome, that can be detected using questionnaires as well. And it’s just a chronotype questionnaire. So, I don’t think, you need brain wave technology. For clinical purposes? Perhaps. Can you get more accurate data? Perhaps. But as you said from a consumer’s perspective, 98% versus 99% [accuracy] is meaningless unless someone knows what to actually do to improve their sleep.”
We don’t care about arguing with EEG, as long as we have very well validated accuracy standards and we can stage sleep extremely accurately which is over 90% right now in comparison to PSG. We’re now focusing on the therapy side of things and connecting the entire system together.”
Science and efficacy
Indeed Circadia’s scientific report says their device has an accuracy of 98% for respiration and 91% for sleep-staging – compared to the gold standard of sleep testing, polysomnography.
Science is at the forefront of the Circadia mission hence they are not shy in making claims about the efficacy of their product. The company plans to release a white paper outlining the findings and research methods behind their claims.
This focus on scientific credibility is part of Circadia’s drive to be part of the lucrative digital health market and to gain FDA approval by 2019.
With regards to scientific advice, the Circadia team is in pretty good hands, with 4 academics on the advisory team, including the world-renowned Professor Russell Foster, whose group made the ground-breaking discovery of a third type of vision receptor in the eye, responsible for synchronizing the body clock to the external world.
Circadia Advisor Professor Russel Foster
Software and integrations
Circadia is very much a connected device. With all the usual smart home integrations built-in, it can talk to IFTTT, Nest and Apple HealthKit to automatically create the most conducive sleep environment.
The modular design also allows Circadia to integrate a host of third party apps and functionality;
“If people don’t want to buy the light therapy device and they just want to buy the sleep tracker, through our mobile app that will able to purchase the CBT program, as an in-app subscription. Off the bat you’ll be able to get free relaxation and meditation techniques. We’re looking at building in auditory tones into the speaker that’s built into the system to help you get your brain state into the right levels, so you can enter your lights sleep phase or enhance your slow wave sleep. So we are essentially building a platform, a modular platform which allows you to really add on more therapies.”
Circadia has also been in talks about integrating with Fitbit, the giant of activity trackers. I asked the CEO what he thought about working with such a large company that’s also in the sleep tracking market;
“So we don’t view the Fitbit brand as our competitors, we view them as our partners. The C.E.O of Fitbit called us straight after hitting our Kickstarter goal in 72 hours and they’re really interested in talking to us because they realize the importance of this. So we’re going to build a Fitbit API into our system because we want to understand more about how, for example exercise plays an impact on someone’s sleep, and how we can recommend different activities at certain points of the day relative to their body clock to help them sleep better. So you know we actually want to work with Fitbit, and so, that’s exactly how its panning out.”
The team has a busy few months ahead. They hope to do their first production run in September 2017 with the first consumer units being shipped in Q2 2018.
But Circadia’s plans don’t stop there. The company is not just gearing up to be another hardware company, it also hopes to become the first breakthrough sleep technology product to transition to a mainstream, validated sleep aid;
“so when someone starts using this product they get a series of questionnaires for a period of five days, that’s it. And that allows us to understand and learn their lifestyle, their habits, their chronotype type, what they do day in day out. This five days of data that we collect allows our learning algorithms to create a very accurate model of how you feel or what the correlations are between your lifestyle and how you feel and your sleep quality.
If the system detects that there might be something wrong, if a diagnosis that you might actually have chronic insomnia and you probably need to go see a sleep doctor, or if you have obstructive sleep apnea, or if you’re showing signs of it. So right now we are consumer health company, but going forward, we have a regulatory framework in place such that by 2019, we want to get both devices FDA certified and that’s the route we’re going down, and that’s why we have so many academics on our team.”
We hope to be testing out Circadia soon. Stay tuned for updates.For more information , visit Circadia at Indiegogo.