Startup Saturday: Say hello to a good night’s sleep
Snoozfit is a gadget that generates a sleep study at home. It is affordable and requires no technicians, claims inventorUpdated: Dec 15, 2018 16:35 IST
Leena * (name changed) 45, was taking four different pills for a host of psychological problems. Yet after four years of popping pills she was still unable to get a good night’s sleep. She had hopped from one doctor to another and quite accidentally landed up at Dr Prasanna Khatavkar’s clinic in Solapur. That is where she slept with the SnoozFit belt under her mattress for a week. And bingo! The sleep report showed what was the exact problem affecting her sleep. A change in medication by her psychiatrist and Leena got back to her normal sleep routine!
This is not a one-off problem. Sadly insomnia affects about 9% of our population. And up until six months ago few people could afford to go to a sleep lab and get their problem analysed at a cost of approximately Rs 10,000 a night with many wires attached from head to toes making it rather impractical for a day-to-day use.
“Snoozfit solves a very pertinent issue in the field of psychiatry, say Dr Khatawkar. Being non-contact, it leads itself very well for use not only in psychiatry, but also in other disciplines too. The product is very easy to use,economical, and can be done anywhere (at the hospital or at the patients’ home), thereby allowing us to do sleep studies on a regular basis”.
Sleep Apnoea - A potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeated starts and stops.Snoring - Snoring happens when air does not move freely though one’s nose and throat during sleep. The surrounding tissues vibrate causing the snoring sound.
The Journey – how it all began
Ram Pazhayannur who did his Master’s degree in biomedical engineering, from the University of Minnesota, USA, back in 1995, was always interested in the subject of sleep. “I was doing research on how tissues behave under thermal shocks and came across several research papers on how one’s sleep gets disturbed when subjected to shocks – may it be environmental, psychological, or lifestyle related. Ram returned from the USA to work with Persistent Systems Ltd, but his desire to understand how sleep works and what impacts sleep, persisted with him. He wanted to delve deeper into the subject and got the support of his boss Dr Anand Deshpande, who agreed to let him have a one year sabbatical to study the issue.
Defining a solution
Sleep is a multi-faceted phenomemnon. Says Ram, “Sleep disorders can be on account of psychiatric problems, pulmonary, cardiac or neurological reasons. Sometimes it could be the firmness of your mattress that disturbs your sleep. Sadly there was no common language to understand all these aspects, except in a sleep lab.
“In the absence of a sleep study a doctor has to rely on his own experience or the patient’s narration to arrive at a diagnosis. Surely there had to be a better way to do this?”
From the beginning, Ram knew that whatever he designed had to be as simple as a BP metre to use, easily accessible and affordable.
“I wanted to design a gadget that could generate a sleep study that one could use at home. That would require no technicians and should also be affordable.” With these design parameters Ram began working on his gadget, which essentially meant that it had to be wireless.
What this is?
Wireless meant that Ram would have to use sensors that could pick up vibrations from the body that could then be translated into a report.
The technique underpinning the sensor
The Snoozfit sensor uses a technique called Ballistocardigraphy (BCG) to record vibrations produced by the body during sleep. BCG relies on the vibrations that are generated in the heart, with ejection of blood into the major arteries during each heartbeat, which can be captured on an external sensor. Ballistocardigraphy was invented back in 1936 by Dr Isaac Starr, but the technique remained largely ignored, on account of the costs and unavailability of sensitive enough sensor material to capture the vibrations accurately through a medium such as a mattress. “Today, such sensor materials are more readily available at affordable price points. Once the raw data is captured on the sensor, sophisticated noise cancellation and signal processing algorithms have been written to extract clean patterns that pertain to breathing rate, heart rate and movements. Using this information along with a finger pulse oximeter, we are able to get a fairly accurate analysis of one’s sleep patterns,” says Ram.
Stages of Development
For five years from 2013 to 2018 Ram worked on the design and algorithms for his product. Says he, “the quality of data you generate is a function of the material. It was very important for us to have the best sensors as that would give the most accurate data.”
Ram found a company in Europe called Emfit which manufactures sensors that suited his needs. “ We buy all our sensors that cost more than a lakh for each belt from them, ” he said.
“Last year was spent doing proof of concept at various sleep labs in the city. Our SnoozFit gives us 80% accuracy in sleep staging, the breathing and heart rate is 96% correct and sleep apnea is reported accurately 90% of the time. We are always on an endeavour to make it better. The more data we gather, the richer will be the output. As doctors start using our belt for different patients with different conditions, our sensor will pick it out and can lead to more insights,”he said.
So far, Ram used his own savings to fund his research and product development. Three months ago he roped in an angel investor for an undisclosed sum. “The investor does not want to reveal details,” he said. He launched his product in June this year and so far has managed to do 130 tests so far. He has priced his tests between Rs 2000 to Rs 5000/- depending on usage. He has also signed an MOU with Bharti Hospital Pune where the doctors can use SnoozFit for academic purposes.
“We are creating a market for sleep analysis, so it comes with all the typical challenges associated with it – awareness creation, convincing doctors that we can in fact get similar data from our sensor as compared to a traditional polysomnography (wired method)” The past eight months Ram has spent meeting doctors and hospitals in Pune and Solapur. His strategy basically is three pronged:
1) Create awareness among doctors: “A person goes to a doctor for sleep problems. Doctors were not aware that such a technology exists. Now with our outreach hundreds of doctors are at least aware of SnoozFit.”
2) Reach out to patients directly: “more and more people are now aware of problems like sleep apnea and I want to let them know that they can get a sleep report in the comfort of their home. No need to go to a sleep lab. This report they can then take to their doctor.”
3) Encourage hospitals to start a sleep lab using our technology: “traditional sleep labs are very capital intensive. You need a dedicated room, lab technicians, consumables and so on. Ours is a much cheaper alternative and gives clear insights into the problem.
Ram also wants to target Tier 2 cities like Belgaum, Pandharpur, Solapur, Nasik etc “These cities have quite a good awareness of psychiatry problems and once they come to know of our technology they are happy to use it. I have a doctor with a 26 bedded hospital in Solapur who is using our SnoozFit belt for his patients and has other doctors referring their patients to him for the same.”
Ram intends to scale this city by city. “I am tapping doctors and hospitals in Pune and the outskirts. I also want to target smaller towns. We now have five people on our staff but when the rubber hits the road I will need more sales people. I also will have to set up a distribution channel.”
Though Ram is tempted to go to non metros he needs to be in towns that have wifi access. “Of course thanks to Jio small towns like Sangli, Pandharpur, Akluj have wifi which makes things easier for us.”
He is looking for equity funding to help him scale up.”I am a first generation entrepreneur and am willing to share my equity with anyone who can help us reach out to more people.” SnoozFit met his goals of simplicity, accessibility and affordability, now the bar rises higher – to reach a maximum number of people who need help with sleep.
First Published: Dec 15, 2018 15:20 IST