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New Device Promises to Break Bad Habits

New Device Promises to Break Bad Habits

One local startup wants to help rid you of those stress-related impulses.

Aneela Idnani Kumar says the genesis for Keen—a Fitbit-shaped device that aims to stop nervous habits like nail-biting and skin-picking—came when her husband, Sameer, confronted her about her disappearing eyebrows. For more than two decades, Aneela had been suffering from trichotillomania, a disorder more commonly known as hair pulling. “From that moment, Sameer and I started talking more about it, and he did his own research,” Aneela says. “Eventually, one day I said I wished I had something to alert me when I was reaching to pull my hair.”

Sameer soon discovered case studies that had followed a similar idea. “In one case, someone had built a proximity detection device where you’d wear one thing on your neck and one thing on your hand, and they’d trigger when they got near each other,” he says. “The devices were big and clunky, but they worked.” The duo consider themselves “techies”—Aneela is a mobile app developer and Sameer specializes in investment analysis and corporate strategy—but neither had the know-how to build a device that would vibrate when certain micro-gestures occurred, like the motion of pulling at eyebrows.

They brought in John Pritchard as lead hardware engineer and Kirk Klobe as lead software and firmware engineer, and the four founded HabitAware, a Minneapolis-based startup that developed the Keen subconscious-behavior tracker. After shipments begin in late January, Sameer, who is CEO, says the company’s goal is to sell between 10,000 and 20,000 of the devices—which are worn on the wrist—in its first year. To do so, he says HabitAware won’t be focusing on just the Americans with stress-related bad habits (up to 3 percent, according to bfrb.org, a website for people with body-focused repetitive behaviors). “We’re also targeting psychologists, dermatologists, pediatric dentists and general practitioners,” he says, “all of which have expressed interest in our product for their patients.”

Of pre-orders to date, half are destined for children. “Even a bad habit like thumbsucking is a concern with kids,” Sameer says. “So we made sure our device could fit children age 5 and even younger.” —Sam Schaust