The global problem of insufficient sleep is driving a growing industry and research field dedicated to helping us make the most of our sleep-wake cycle. With rapid advancements in technologies unlocking new opportunities, from optimizing circadian rhythms to leveraging sleep measurements for the diagnosis and prediction of patient health, it’s never been a more exciting time to discuss the future of this domain.

At our recent virtual event, we hosted leading neuroscientists and internationally recognized authorities on sleep and circadian rhythms, Prof. Yuval Nir and Steven Lockley Ph.D, to talk about what we can expect from this field in the years to come.

At CNS’s recent virtual meetup, esteemed researchers Dr. Daniele Di Lernia and Rani Cohen, Co-Founder and chairman of GrayMatters Health, shared how they are translating groundbreaking research into transformative mental wellbeing products and navigating the road from science to product. 

Below, we recap the session’s key takeaways, from how much supporting research is needed before advancing to product development, to the importance of focusing on the end-user from day one.  

More than a decade ago, when Italian researcher Dr. Daniele Di Lernia first began to learn about the body’s interoceptive system–which helps us perceive or feel processes inside ourselves, including pain, stress, and fatigue– he immediately asked himself how science and technology could manipulate this system to help people feel and live better.

“This question actually shaped our research,” recalled Di Lernia, a researcher at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, who now leads a CNS-backed project, at our recent event, “From Science to Product.” 

In fact, it was this question that has brought Di Lernia’s group from lab research to its current advanced stage of testing a non-invasive prototype bracelet that targets and stimulates the interoceptive system via the skin. By gently stimulating nerve receptors in the skin, which are extremely sensitive to touch, the wearable device aims to reduce stress, anxiety, and pain.

Rani Cohen, the second speaker at our event and Co-founder and Executive Chairman of GrayMatters, a company that is developing a groundbreaking and easier way to deliver life-changing neurofeedback therapy, also said that it was the potential of new lab research to reach a wide audience that has inspired much of his work. The tech behind GrayMatters’ device which allows the use of cheaper EEG sensors, rather than MRI machines, to measure brain activity, is a result of many years of research led by Dr. Talma Hendler at Tel Aviv University, where she won world acclaim for her scientific projects related to emotional experiences and the human brain.

Identifying “minimal viable research”

Translating research into a viable product is an ongoing challenge in the field of mental well-being technology, according to Di Lernia and Cohen. “It’s very difficult to find research that has enough data to start a company on,” Cohen said. 

Cohen focused on the importance of what he calls “minimal viable research,” or the amount of research and data needed to get investors on board when developing a product. For example, when he first encountered the technology behind GrayMatters, developed at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, he saw that it had “huge potential but needed verification.” It was only after three more years of additional research that he and his team were ready to approach investors to back the idea, he recalled. 

Putting consumers and end-users first

Di Lernia’s main advice was to be constantly thinking of the high-level goal of any research project; this prevents the dilemma that many startups find themselves in of having a novel technology but struggling to find a practical use for it. “Try to look for the practical application of your idea and let this define science and tech,” he said. “It seems quite obvious, but this doesn’t happen enough in the research field and in academia. We are so focused on science that  often we forget to think about the people that could actually benefit from this kind of science.”

Having the end-user in mind is also important in guiding the design process, he said. He recalled that although many participants in his team’s lab experiments were thankful for the technology improving their lives, having to come into a lab for treatments was often not ideal. That’s why they decided to develop a wearable version. “The technology must adapt to people,” he said. “People do not need to adapt to the tech.”

Also, often exactly how or why something works is not as important as the fact that it has been proven to work, Di Lernia said. He explained that although his team has shown that skin stimulation can reduce chronic pain by 23%, “to be honest, we still have no clear idea why this kind of stimulation works.” He cited several research-backed explanations of the possible mechanism and said future work will examine this question more carefully. But in the meantime, his team is still moving forward to develop a wearable device based on the technology.

Working with a business mindset

The balance between science and entrepreneurship can be a delicate one, Cohen said. 

“Researchers need academic freedom, they are not there to make a profit, and this can be contradictory to business,” he said. He talked about the importance of building trust between researchers and the business side of any product collaboration. 

As an entrepreneur “you have to make business decisions at the end of the day. Sometimes research needs to go in a different direction, and it’s best if you can reach a point where you can make those decisions with the researchers.”

Both Cohen and Di Lernia emphasized that the most successful products cater to real market demand. Cohen explained that the fact that mental health takes a larger financial toll on society than cancer and diabetes combined, was the main reason he decided to found GrayMatters. Di Lernia recalled studying market demand for answers when facing the dilemma of which direction to go with his research on the body’s interoceptive system, which plays a role in so many conditions, including eating disorders, addiction, and fatigue. His team ultimately decided to focus first on chronic pain because it is a pervasive problem lacking meaningful solutions.

“Chronic pain is a social emergency,” he said. “Even if we just help a few percent of people suffering, it could have a massive impact on society.” 

It all goes back to science

While the road to market can be long, scientific research is key to finding long-term solutions for improving mental well-being.

“The first step is and always has been science,” Di Lernia said. And that science should be driven from the beginning “by a simple question of how can I use this to change society?”