Moona’s smart pillow helps regulate pillow temperature for a full night of sleep.

This year on World Sleep Day (March 19, 2021), five sleep experts joined HAX moderator Garrett Winther on a panel to discuss what (literally) keeps people up at night and how hardware solutions can improve the quality and quantity of sleep. The panelists included:

Panelists agreed that the problem with sleep-focused wearables and apps is that they only provide data patterns — not solutions for a better night’s sleep. By preparing for restful sleep through breathing exercises, temperature and light adjustments, and even customized sleep equipment, the sleep experts discussed how tech can ameliorate night wakings, insomnia, and daytime fatigue. The panelists also conversed about one common pain point of sleep startups: straddling the line between medical devices and consumer devices.

Here are a few other takeaways from the event.

From Crying Babies to Exhausted Parents

Panelists chatted at length on how sleep operates in a family home — particularly between parents and their infants or small children. Radhika Patil explained how her smart cradle startup Cradlewise combines infant sleep science with engineering to help soothe babies coming out of lighter sleep cycles before they reach the point of crying.

Cradlewise launched in the Bay Area last fall, and has helped parents add an average of extra two hours of sleep to their night.

Radhika Patil: “All modern day baby monitors inform you that your baby has woken up. But once the baby has woken up, you have like signed up to soothe for the next 40 minutes. What we are trying to do is act early on. We have an integrated baby monitor in our crib that senses stirring and informs the crib to start bouncing and play white noise. This early action and intervention helps safeguard baby (and parent) sleep.”

The Elusive Cold Side of the Pillow

Another topic that recurred among panelists was ways to set the stage for a successful night’s sleep, whether that includes dimming lights or adjusting a thermometer. Raymann and Juin both mentioned that from an evolutionary standpoint, human body temperature naturally self-regulates to compensate for warmth during waking hours and cold at night.

Coline Juin: “Our body temperature has a very strong impact on our sleep quality. At the beginning of the night, average temperature decreases and we lose approximately one degree Celsius. During the night, we need to keep a low body temperature. That’s why a lot of you flip the pillow to the cool side when you can’t sleep or put a foot out of the cover. Through a pillow insert connected to a bedside device, Moona acts on the temperature of the head and neck to help you regulate.”

The Trouble With Winding Down

Dr. Roy Raymann, the “sleep czar,” pointed out that wind-down time is essential to reach a “sleep permissive state” — a sentiment that Julian Jagtenberg emphatically backed with his focus on pre-sleep breath work.

Dr. Roy Raymann: “Your body needs to be in a state that allows you to sleep. With our busy lifestyles, it’s very hard for the body to switch off. Now, we still do that email at 10 p.m. for our work or we still want to see a little bit of Netflix. When you keep running your body in the highest gear all the time, you can find it hard to sleep. A wind-down period may greatly help you transition into sleep.”

Julian Jagtenberg: “Stress has always kept us up at night. But the problem in this day and age isn’t the fear of a night-time tiger attack anymore. It’s a coronavirus. It’s a demanding job. It’s relationships. As a society, we are more anxious than ever. The one natural method to shift from a fight-or-flight mode to a parasympathetic nervous response is breath work. With Somnox, we measure your breathing rate with a CO2 sensor and an accelerometer, translate the data to indicate your emotional state, and shift your state with breathing techniques to help you achieve relaxation and wind down.”

How Will Sleep Startups Get Their Wings?

While speakers and audience members agreed that quality sleep is undoubtedly a worthwhile investment, the panelists explained that their companies struggled to earn a vote of confidence from investors and venture capitalists because they didn’t fall cleanly into the categories of either medical device or consumer hardware.

Julian Jagtenberg: “From talking to 100 plus venture capitalists for our Series A round last year, the big questions are, ‘Are you providing an evidence-based medical device? Or are you offering a consumer-focused wellness device?’”

Colin Juin: “As the technology and science matures, people are becoming more and more familiar with the model where you’re not completely med tech and you’re not completely consumer tech, either.”

That said, the experts seemed to agree that these concerns may fade as sleep tech companies conduct peer-reviewed research and consumers more readily adopt household tech that closes the loop for their sleep-related problems.