Jeff Mann talks to Guirec Le Lous, CEO of Urgotech, a startup that hopes to bring neurofeedback sleep therapy to the masses with its Urgonight ‘brain training’ headband
In the last few years, the consumer sleep technology space has spawned an incredibly diverse portfolio of gadgets, products, apps – using a wide variety of techniques and technologies to tackle the universal issue that we’re not getting the amount and quality of sleep we deserve.
From smart beds to insomnia aids, baby sleep gadgets to aromatherapy devices, the market has exploded with a plethora of different solutions for tracking, optimizing, and improving the way we relax and sleep in the 21st century.
Another intriguing sector in sleep-tech is neurotechnology. Fuelled by innovations in machine learning and EEG (brain activity) sensing, more and more firms are exploring ways to probe the depths of the sleeping brain to give insights, recommendations and actionable advice to promote better sleep.
Amongst the current crop of sleep-focussed neuro-tech firms is new contender, Urgotech. Although in development for several years, the French startup’s neurofeedback equipped headband, Urgonight came to wider public attention when it appeared alongside an ever-burgeoning display of sleep tech at CES 2019, and more recently a successful IndieGoGo campaign.
With several companies – including Dreem, Muse, Kokoon to name a few – already incorporating EEG technology into their sleep products, you’d be forgiven for thinking this a crowded market. However, in contrast, Urgonight is something genuinely new that we haven’t seen before – a headband that you wear during the day to improve your sleep at night…
So how does it work, and what’s the story behind the product? I spoke via Skype with Urgotech CEO Guirec Le Lous to find out more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity
Jeff Mann (JM): Hi Guirec, thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. Can you give us a brief summary of what Urgonight is and how it can offer help to sleep with sleep problems?
Guirec Le Lous (GL): Sure, one out of three people in the world have trouble sleeping, I’m sure you already know the stats, but what that means is everyone knows someone that has a sleep problem.
And when you have trouble sleeping, what you usually do is go and see a doctor to make a diagnosis of your problem.
And depending of the problem, they might decide to send you to a sleep centre. And amongst them, some have been equipped, for more than 20 years, with a technology called neurofeedback which can help you sleep faster and wake up less during the night.
The only problem with neurofeedback, nowadays is that it’s not very convenient. Since there aren’t many sleep centres equipped in this way, you have to live nearby, you have to be accepted, and after that you need to go there three times a week. And so it’s not very convenient for the patient.
And that’s why we developed UrgoNight so that everyone can have access to neurofeedback in a very easy, simple and motivating way.
It’s a headband you only need to use 15 minutes during your day, so it can be in the morning, in the afternoon at work, at home. It’s very simple to use and very motivating, and the app that comes with it is a game that motivates you throughout your treatment to perform the exercises and improve your sleep.
JM: I’ve not really come across neurofeedback before in a big way, which is quite surprising because we cover so much of the sleep technology world. Is neurofeedback common in France?
GL: It’s more common in the US where you’ll find a lot of centres with neurofeedback technology. In France, we have only two centers equipped, so it’s not very common. It’s part of the reason why we wanted to make it available for everyone.
JM: Could you just say a few brief words about the company because again, coming from the UK, I’d not heard of, you guys, but your parent company, the Urgo Group is a big organization with a lot of history behind it…
GL: Yeah the organisation has been around since 1882, more than 140 years. And we operate in two main fields of healthcare. We own four of the 10 most well known brands in the health care sector in France, that’s roughly half of the business. And the other half of the business is in advanced advanced wound care treatments.
We are number two in Europe now, and it’s a very fast growing environment. And the reason for that is that we’ve always been very passionate about inventing new technologies and investing in innovation and research and development.
And so it was the perfect environment to nurture the idea of UrgoNight and to create UrgoTech as a startup within the Urgo Group. And since we are a very well established company, we have enough funds and money to take the time to invest in developing Urgonight as a best in class product.
It’s taken us five years to develop and when we put it on the market, it’s going to be a finished product, very simple to use, very motivating and efficient.
JM: There seems to be a lot of companies in France popping up in the sleep technology space. And I don’t see the same for Spain, Germany, Italy or anywhere else in Europe. Is there any particular reason for this?
GL: I believe we have a very positive environment for innovation in France at the moment. The French government is putting a lot of money into helping people build startups, invest in new technologies, and we see a little bit now [in France] of what has made a success of Silicon Valley.
And that’s been the case for us, new companies partnering with public research centres, with doctors. And you can kind of see these clusters, environments where people interact between academia, business and medicine.
And that’s how we created the tech at the beginning, partnering with doctors, partnering with research labs, partnering with neuroscientists, and creating the perfect environment and expertise to create Urgonight. And in France nowadays, the government is pushing alot to create these kinds of environments for startups.
JM: What was the original impetus for choosing this technology for neurofeedback? You say you’ve worked with these sleep centres to develop this technology, but I’m wondering, what was the motivation to get into this area of neurofeedback?
GL: It’s more of a personal orientation. My mum is a psychologist, she’s a CBTi specialist in France , she’s the one who introduced me to neuroscience and CBT.
So I found it very interesting to discover that there was science to make people feel better, making them responsible for the fact that they have to feel better and making them responsible for their own treatment and wellbeing.
And in this way I discovered neurofeedback technology. I found that it had scientific, clinical validation, and that neurofeedback can improve night awakenings by 53%, and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep by 40%.
So basically you have a treatment that’s efficient, that’s been on the market for 20 years. It’s proven it’s safe and it’s very appealing because you don’t wear anything during the night. It only involves training exercises that you do during the day, 15 minutes, three times a week.
So that’s when I decided to create Urgotech to make it simple and available for everyone because I believe that’s what was missing with neurofeedback technologies is to make it convenient, simple and affordable, to make it available for more people, to make it a more common technology available in everyone’s home.
And since I’m an engineer myself, looking at this technology and seeing that it was efficient, I knew we could make it a simple device for everyone that could be affordable and easy to use. And that’s how we started the company end of 2014 beginning of 2015.
JM: Can you explain the basic principles of using neurofeedback for sleep problems?
GL: Basically when life changes happen, like a big stressful event or you start having children, it can cause sleep problems. Some people will get back to normal sleep after the event quite easily, but some will have trouble getting back to good sleep again, because the brain can forget how to protect your sleep.
When you go to sleep, part of your brain is responsible for disconnecting the brain from the outside environment so that you don’t wake up when there’s a little noise, a change in temperature, some little movements or change in lighting. [Normally] you’re not sensitive to this kind of stimuli during the night.
But the people who lack the ability to do this, to protect their sleep, if they have the slightest perturbation in their surrounding environment during sleep, they can wake up and they will have a very hard time getting back to sleep. And they may also find it very difficult to fall asleep.
So principal of neurofeedback is helping you to train yourself to know how to generate this brain activity, how to protect your sleep during the night so that you can sleep better.
Explainer: what is neurofeedback?
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard the term before. Despite having been popularised in the 1960s and subsequently, the subject of thousands of scientific papers, neurofeedback has neither been accepted into mainstream medical practice, nor gained wide recognition as a viable or efficacious form of therapy.
Broadly speaking, neurofeedback is a ‘brain-training’ technique and a form of therapy which aims to improve brain function, and has been studied for its usefulness in a wide range of conditions including insomnia, ADHD, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, epilepsy and more.
If you suffer from insomnia, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be referred for neurofeedback therapy, because it’s not taught in medical schools, most doctors are unaware of the protocols, applications and success rates, and treatment facilities are thin on the ground. Despite this, centres such as the EEG Institute in California and others have been offering clinical neurofeedback services for decades.
Neurofeedback is sometimes referred to as EEG biofeedback because the therapy most commonly involves using electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to monitor the patients live brain activity.
This data is then presented to the patient on a computer screen as a video game which is essentially controlled and influenced by the patient’s brain activity. Winning points in the game sets up a ‘reward’ system that encourages the user to help “shape” brain activity towards more desirable, more regulated outcomes that can help your condition.
There are many different treatment protocols, however, commonly, treatment consists of brief (20-30 minute) sessions, performed several times a week, over the course of a few weeks or months. It’s a non-invasive therapy, and has shown to be safe and free from side effects.
In the case of Urgonight, the daytime training sessions condition your brain to strengthen the sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) brainwaves, which in preliminary research has shown promising results as an effective means to improving sleep quality
JM: So how does Urgonight work in practice?
GL: So it’s a training program that you do during the day so you don’t have to wear the headband during the night. It’s a little bit like the fisherman metaphor. If I give you a fish, you will be able to eat tonight. If I teach you how to fish, you will be able to eat all your life.
So what you do during the training is you’re going to wear the headset and this is going to measure your brain activity. And it’s going to look for when you succeed in producing the brainwaves that are linked to sleep protection.
When you succeed in doing that in the app, you will earn points. When you fail to produce the brain waves linked to sleep protection, you don’t earn any points. And the purpose of the game is to get as many points as you can.
JM: So it’s like a sort of psychological reward mechanism?
GL: Yes, exactly. It’s a reward. It motivates you to continue, to keep doing the right habits, the habits you want to train.
So at the beginning when you start doing the Urgonight training, you’re looking at the screen and you may have the feeling that you’re randomly earning points. Sometimes you do earn points, sometimes you don’t.
So initially it’s hard to make the connection between what you have to do to earn points but app is going to drive you and there are different strategies that you can implement in the training.
Everyone’s going to have a different strategy. For me for instance it’s to isolate myself from the outside environment. But for others, it could be that you have to meditate, or let your mind drift away.
So you will try those different strategies and you will look for the ones that help you earn points that’s help you produced those ways you want to train.
JM: And there’s a discovery process at the start?
GL: Yeah, so at the start there’s a discovery process to find a strategy that’s going to work for you. You want to understand what you have to do to produce the right brain waves and earn points.
And once you’ve got your own strategy working, what you’re going to do is you’re going to train it, you’re going to practice three times a week, 15 to 20 minutes in the daytime, to try to earn as many points as you can.
And by doing that repeatedly, your brain is going to learn progressively how to protect your sleep. And when the night comes, you’re going to have good quality sleep and you’re going to wake up refreshed.
JM: We cover a lot of new sleep technology devices. And I think sometimes people buy into hardware products, an app or whatever and they expect it to be some sort of magic bullet that if I buy this gadget it will cure my problem.
However we have other types of therapies and treatments for sleep and I’m just wondering how you see Urgonight fitting into the sleep tech space, with all these different products, lifestyle sleep products, medical treatments for sleep, complimentary therapies?
How does Urgonight fit into this whole ecosystem of new innovative sleep technology that’s happening?
GL: In terms of validation we are using a technology that has been around for 20 years and has its own clinical validation.
That was the first step – taking a technology that was already clinically validated and shown to improve the quality of sleep – waking up less during the night and going faster to sleep.
The second thing that we’ve done already, is to validate that Urgonight product is equivalent to neurofeedback devices used in sleep centres.
We’ve done that, and we are now starting some clinical validation in France, in Holland and in the US. So that’s for the evidence based part.
In terms of there being nothing magical in this life, I fully agree with you. Things people have to bear in mind is that when you use Urgonight, you have to train three times a week and you’re going to see the first results after one month and you need to wait four months before you can see significant results on your sleep, at least, that’s what has been published for neurofeedback efficacy.
So it needs motivation, involvement and energy from you to improve.
JM: Do you have to be using it for four months or can you use it for a month and then the improvements will show up in four months. Is that a sort of a continuous habitual use for that four month period?
GL: You need to be very focused on following the treatment during the first four months, during those three sessions a week. That’s very important for it to be efficient.
That’s why we made it so convenient so that if you want to go on vacation you can bring it along with you, if you want to train in the office at home, because it’s very important you follow the protocol. That’s why we made it very simple and convenient at the beginning and motivating for the game so that you want to come back to it until the treatment.
After four months you can start spacing the sessions, you don’t have to to do it so regularly. It’s really up to you to define the regularity but you need to sustain the results.
In terms of how we fit into the current environment with all these sleep technologies, I would say that firstly, you have people who suffer from serious problems, people who are sick.
I think those people need to see a doctor who will make a diagnosis to define the right strategy and therapy. It might be Urgonight but it can might be a different kind of therapy.
For instance, people suffering from sleep apnea should not be using Urgonight. They should be using different kinds of technologies that are appropriate for them.
But you also have another kind of the population, people who are not sick, they don’t sleep very well and they wake up during the night, they have trouble falling asleep. Those people are going to to find Urgonight useful to help them train the brain to protect their sleep and sleep better.
JM: Tell us about the IndieGogo campaign
GL: The reason we chose to go on Indiegogo, was I believe a little bit different from what other people are looking for in these kind of crowdfunding campaigns. We already have the funding, we already know we’re going to launch the product next year.
What we are looking for is to create a community of Urgonight users, that could become Urgonight ambassadors when we launch.
So amongst those IndieGogo backers, I believe that some will be eager to communicate their feedback and in order for us to know them better, to let us know what they think of the product, what are the different strategies they implemented to succeed in the treatments and how we can, improve and talk about the product when we launch.
So we’re looking to create the first base of the Urgonight community – people who will have it before the others in December. And people will be eager to talk with us, communicate and interact, and for us to know our users better.
Urgonight is currently available for pre-order via IndieGogo In-Demand for $349 (30% discount)