Over 40 million Americans are suffering from a clinical anxiety disorder, and about 200 million prescriptions are written each year to address anxiety problems. Just thinking about society’s problem with stress is enough to induce stress. Fortunately, there are innovative companies, like Neumitra, which have taken up the challenge of addressing stress through some of our favorite technologies: quantified self, wearatronics, big data, machine learning, etc.
This author first met the Neumitra team this past summer at the Rock Health Boston offices and was impressed with their plans to build a watch, called the bandu, to measure people’s autonomic nervous system activity throughout the day. They have some interesting ideas, such as generating heat maps showing where the most stressful locations are based on individual and aggregated stress data (e.g. the office, public transportation stations, New York City, etc). Now they’ve launched an ambitious indiegogo campaign to raise money for their first production run. We caught up with founder Robert Goldberg to discuss their company, the bandu, and their upcoming plans.
Shiv Gaglani, Medgadget: How did neumitra come to be? Where did you get the name from?
Robert Goldberg: We all met in the Neurotechnology Ventures class at MIT taught by Ed Boyden and Joost Bonsen. I’m a neuroscientist by training (neuroimaging and fMRI). My co-founders worked in product development for the Human Genome Project and in machine learning and pattern recognition for the MIT Lincoln Lab. Anand found the benefits of meditation in his own life. So we started by discussing the value of a wearable sensor for measuring the effects of daily life on the mind. We saw that U.S. spending on mental health was the third largest category and with anxiety disorders as the largest category of mental health symptoms.
Neumitra literally comes from the Latin “neu” for new and the Sanskrit “mitra” for friend. So new friend or neurofriend. We saw the smartphone as a new friend for your daily health. It’s east meets west both in the name and in the execution – data to drive behavioral changes. It also helped that we came up with the name sitting in Building 46 at MIT (Brain and Cognitive Sciences) and MIT is right in the middle of the name.
Medgadget: Your first product is the bandu, correct? What does it do and how does it work? Where did its name come from?
Goldberg: bandu is designed as the first effort to measure the autonomic nervous system as part of your daily life. We found that as compelling as the data is for us, users wanted something more. So we built in the watch face to alert you during your most stressful times and trigger apps on your phone to help you to feel better and show what works for you, your friends, and across larger groups.
bandu is from the Sanskrit “bandhu” meaning friend or buddy. We see bandu as a living, learning buddy for your daily life. The AI is designed to get smarter the more to wear it to better alert you to impending changes in your stress and with the best apps to help support you. Your data allows us to understand and effect stress more broadly across your life, your friends, even your whole company and city.
Medgadget: Who is your target market, and how big is the landscape?
Goldberg: Our goal is to deliver into the clinic new technologies to help patients who are really struggling. The challenge is the reimbursement and regulatory hurdles to reach that outcome. Consumers allow us to focus on the daily use case for why someone would want to wear the technologies long-term. Our focus is then providing daily value in a way that activity and sleep devices have been challenged to provide. We know that over 40 million Americans have a clinical anxiety disorder and more than 200 million prescriptions are being written each year for sedative drugs. But stress isn’t just associated with mental health. Stress makes symptoms worse for cardiac diseases, respiratory ailments, digestive issues, and even pain and fertility. Stress, and the autonomic nervous system, affects the whole body. Nowhere is this central role more apparent than when we look at the physiology of the sympathetic versus the parasympathetic nervous systems.
Medgadget: Do you have any competitors? If so, what makes you different?
Goldberg: Biofeedback devices are available to consumers but not in a wearable form to enable real-time alerts and daily, passive data tied to smartphone usage. We then show you the statistics.
Medgadget: You recently launched an indiegogo campaign for bandu. What is your primary goal for the campaign?
Goldberg: The goal for our indiegogo campaign is to engage early adopters with the first version of our technologies and given that we’re only making small batches prior to ramping up widespread production. We aim to effectively bring in the feedback from those early users to build better technologies. Our earliest backers will make the technology and scientific progress possible.
Medgadget: What is your background in medicine and medical technology?
Goldberg: I first found myself in a psychiatric hospital at the age of 20 to better understand my family history of mental illness. At night I worked in a sleep lab and realized we could measure brain waves while you sat, meditated, or slept. Those experiences drove me away from psychiatry and into neuroimaging and fMRI where I did research for ten years. In 1999 we were collecting one GB of fMRI data across 30,000 locations every 3 seconds in one person’s brain. I watched as the math was invented to analyze that data. When we first started discussing wearable sensors I immediately saw the data associated with daily life and with the smartphone. The stress map we compute clearly has a precedent in neuroimaging heat maps. We’re building the framework for a real-time stress map of the entire planet.
For more information, check out this entertaining and informative video about bandu (with an appropriate soundtrack):