Stress is a silent killer. Three out of four doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments, reports the American Institute of Stress, and stress increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke by 40 percent, 25 percent, and 50 percent, respectively.
London-based, Will Smith-backed BioBeats aims to treat this condition, and it’s well on its way to doing so. The startup today announced a $3 million funding round led by Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI), White Cloud, and IQ Capital, following on the heels of a $2.28 million funding round in April 2016.
“For BioBeats, our vision is to disrupt the way stress is viewed and treated on a global scale,” Dr. David Plans, founder and chief science officer, said in a statement. “Our approach focuses on challenging the conventional approach to addressing the pandemic of stress and its relation to mental health, cardiovascular disease, and other poor health outcomes. We are truly at a turning point in the digital health revolution, and this latest round of funding will help us achieve remarkable advances for our platform.”
It all starts with a smartphone app called BioBase.
The app’s core component is an eight-week course consisting of coaching topics, exercises, audio sessions, and surveys surfaced by an artificially intelligent (AI) recommender system. Logs and measurements inform its pace and curriculum. If you’re feeling particularly stressed one morning, it might suggest a focus exercise in the afternoon, or physical activity and a “mind stress check” after work. It supplies insights over time, such as the locations and events that trigger the most stress; weekly and monthly summaries of your emotional well-being; and any progress you’ve made.
It’s aimed at the “corporate wellness” market (it integrates with HR systems and productivity suites), Plans said, and is currently being piloted by “several” large companies in the U.S. and U.K., including BNP Paribas, a leading financial services firm.
Before pivoting to enterprise, BioBase developed a consumer app — Hear and Now — that uses smartphone camera flashes to illuminate the skin (a technique known as photoplethysmography) and determines relative stress levels from heartbeat readings. It then guides users through a series of eight deep breathing exercises designed to reduce overall “approximate entropy,” a measure of heart rate variability.
Two of its other prototypes were Pulse, an app that generated electronic music based on users’ heart rate, and BioMuse, which created music playlists from physiological factors like breathing rate. BioBeats cofounder Nadeem Kassam, who collaborated with the band The Far East Movement in 2013 to produce a live performance during which users contributed their heartbeats, coined the connection between vital signs and music “adaptive media.”
In the past two years, BioBeats has more or less pivoted away from those early experiments in favor of B2B and health systems products. In 2017, it teamed up with partner charity CW+ to trial the Breathing Stone, an oval-shaped device with a heart rhythm detection circuit, loudspeaker, LED lights, and wireless antennas that self-guides breathing and meditation with visual and audio cues.
About 200 patients per month in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital used it in waiting rooms before undergoing surgery. According to BioBeats, they reported a reduction in physical and mental stress by an average of 23 percent.
For Plans, who previously worked with the U.K.’s National Health Service to roll out a mobile app that let users self-report on chronic illness and who personally suffered an episode of stress-induced cardiac arrest several years ago, discovering ways to minimize both short-term and chronic stress is a lifelong pursuit.
In February, he coauthored a study with researchers at the University of Surrey that linked workplace rumination — thoughts about work outside of work — with cardiovascular disease.
“[T]he results of our study indicate that in fact, [stress] is killing people, Plans said. “[A]lways working is very bad for our health … This is a cultural problem that must be addressed sooner rather than later.”
Self-service meditation apps and services are all the rage lately. In April, wellness app Shine raised $5 million and announced 2 million users across 189 countries. In June, Calm raked in $27 million in a funding round backed by, among others, Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures and former One Direction singer Harry Styles. And in July, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) startup Curable announced customer growth of between 20-50 percent.