U of M Digital Health Spinoff Developing Game-Based App to Reduce Snoring
A digital health startup newly spun off from University of Minnesota research wants to help users of its smartphone app sleep better through a novel, “gamified” therapy program which it says has been shown to reduce snoring.
The company, Soundly, was co-founded last year by a trio U-connected researchers, including two “Innovation Fellows” at the school’s Medical Devices Center and a U of M sleep health physician.
Together this fall they will launch what they call a digital health solution to chronic snoring, a condition that has proven hard to effectively treat. That’s mostly because many sufferers have shown they’re not willing to tolerate the current go-to method for treating snoring and more serious cases of sleep apnea, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which involves wearing a mask connected to an air compressor.
“We have shown through clinical research at the University that we are effective at reducing snoring, and we’re completely unique in that we’re an app – we’re not a device, we’re not something that you have to put on your face,” co-founder Brian Krohn told TCB. “What we do is treat the root cause of snoring and help the body reduce it on its own.”
Krohn said Soundly is launching a beta version of the app this summer and is making it available to early adopters by signing up at its website. The company is looking for angel investors and intends to roll out the commercial version by this fall.
In the meantime, Krohn is keeping the details of exactly how the app operates under wraps. But, the 31-year-old entrepreneur (who is also a co-founder of Mighty Axe Hops) said the broad idea is to use a video game approach to induce users into an exercise therapy meant to strengthen and tone the upper airway, which addresses the root cause of snoring and sleep apnea.
The method is based on research conducted by another of the co-founders, Medtronic biomedical engineer and former U of M Innovation Fellow Adam Black. Dr. Umesh Goswami, a U of M medical professor, physician and sleep health specialist, is the third Soundly co-founder.
This year Goswami and the U received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the app, which will initially be marketed to address snoring only, rather than the more serious sleep apnea.
In making the case for NSF funding, the researchers noted there are more than 90 million Americans who suffer from snoring and 25 million who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Snoring, they said, is a “pervasive social problem that greatly reduces the quality of life of individuals, partners, and families and has been tied to negative health outcomes,” while current treatments such as CPAP are “often ineffective, too expensive or burdensome.”
Sleep apnea is linked to serious health conditions such as hypertension, stroke, heart disease, arrhythmias, diabetes, depression, and increases the risk of cancer mortality.
According to the NSF grant award, the Soundly therapy consists of “directed exercises that can be performed in a voice-controlled smartphone game which is both effective and engaging.” It is aimed at toning the upper airway, which is generally weak and collapses during sleep. It builds on existing research showing that exercising the airway can result in a substantial reduction in snoring and sleep apnea.
In developing the idea at the Medical Device Center, the initial work involved partnering with experts in speech therapy and sleep medicine to identify the most effective therapy to tone the upper airway. It also included “proof-of-concept experiments using ultrasound imaging of tongue motion … to ensure the therapy consistently had the intended effect.”
Krohn characterized the regimen as “kind of like push-ups for your tongue.”
He also praised the creative and collaborative research philosophy of the Innovation Fellows program, where the entrepreneurs were able to work in close quarters with U sleep health doctors to identify unmet market needs. In this case, he said, they determined there wasn’t anything effective on the market available for those who suffer from snoring but who fall short of a sleep apnea diagnosis.
The stated goal of the Innovation Fellows program is to “train the next leaders in medtech by fostering leadership and teaching risk management for medical devices.”