The Restless Quest for a Good Night’s Sleep

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If you are reading this at 3 a.m., chances are that James Proud wants to put you in a deep slumber.

As the inventor of the sleep-tracking device Sense, Mr. Proud has enjoyed heady success in the quickly growing sleep tech field: Sense’s 2014 Kickstarter campaign raised about $2.4 million even though the goal was only $100,000.

One of Mr. Proud’s business partners is Arianna Huffington, who stepped away from her media empire to be the queen of lifestyle wellness.

“I’m fascinated by helping people live better,” said Mr. Proud, 25, a British citizen who came to the United States via the Thiel Fellowship, which gives entrepreneurs $100,000 for skipping college. “And sleep is the foundation of everything. So it’s the best place to start.”

Insomnia and other temporary and recurring sleep disorders affect 50 million to 70 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the effects only worsen as people grow older. Technology, while still nascent, is an alternative for those who do not want to take sleeping pills, which can be highly addictive.

Sense is the first product offered by Mr. Proud’s 50-employee company, Hello, based in San Francisco. It is sold on Amazon and will soon appear in Target and Best Buy stores. To finance Sense, Mr. Proud has raised over $40 million from backers like Allen & Company and Temasek Holdings, owned by the Singapore government.

Like many other tech devices that monitor every twitch and turn of the human body, Sense uses sensors to collect reams of data. The information is then uploaded to a smartphone app that analyzes sleep cycles. An accelerometer about the size of a quarter attaches to a pillow and tracks tosses and turns. And a bedside hub, shaped like a ball, tracks sounds, light and temperature in a room. It glows green when sleep conditions are optimal.

“You can fall into bed drunk and it still works,” said Mr. Proud, a self-taught programmer.

Sleep technology products range from the basic app to the esoteric. The Sleep Shepherd headband, invented by a professor whose daughter had a sleep disorder, monitors brain waves while the wearer sleeps. Noise-canceling headphones pipe in sound. Other devices also emit light, some mimicking sunsets. They join hundreds of downloadable apps, like Sleep Cycle and SleepBot, which track every sleep tic.

All are trying to solve an age-old problem with new technologies that experts say are still mostly unproven.

“Most of these apps and wearables don’t have good-quality research that shows they improve sleep,” said Dr. Neil Kline, a representative of the American Sleep Association and a sleep specialist. “It takes years to do good research. And a lot of these technologies just came out.”

Yet, experts agree that the market is huge and important. About half the United States population will have insomnia on any given night, Dr. Kline said.

Now, technology is being applied to difficulty in sleeping caused in an increasing number of Americans by the beeps and Day-Glo lights of tech devices.

Insomnia is also proved to cause a litany of problems, such as deadly motor vehicle accidents, heart disease and difficulty in concentrating. According to a RAND Corporation study, sleeplessness costs the economy up to $411 billion a year in lost productivity.

“A huge slice of society would be interested in this technology,” Dr. Kline said.

After his own sleepless nights, Matteo Franceschetti decided in 2014 to start his sleep tech company, Eight, named after the optimal hours of sleep for humans. Mr. Franceschetti, an Italian-born lawyer, attacked sleep from a different angle: by making mattresses smart.

The company invented a system that tracks time awake, breathing rate and number of tosses and turns through a mattress cover embedded with sensors. An app then “grades” users’ sleep, allowing them to adjust their sleeping habits.

“We provide insight to users,” said Mr. Franceschetti, a serial entrepreneur who started two clean-tech companies in the last several years. “It’s partly education.”

Eight, based in New York, now has 17 employees. It has raised $6.5 million so far from Y Combinator, Comcast Ventures, Azure Capital Partners and others.

“Everyone knows about nutrition and fitness,” said Paul Ferris, general partner at Azure Capital Partners. “Sleep is the third pillar.”

The rapid rise of wearable fitness trackers like Fitbit, he added, helped set up a fire hose of data that consumers could harness to track behavior.

Early adopters like Alex Muir, a tech support analyst who works at a New York private school, are helping test these early sleep technologies. Last year, he contributed $199 to Eight’s Indiegogo campaign, and got the company’s smart cover, hub and app.

“Eight is helping me identify what’s going on with my sleep,” he said. “When it’s colder, I get a better night’s sleep, and I can see that in the app.”

Mr. Muir acknowledges that technology alone can’t solve problems with sleep. “It can provide a baseline of information, though,” he said.

Some who study sleep, however, say sensors and technology do not necessarily solve the underlying problems of insomnia.

“Sleep sensors are feeding back inaccurate information,” said Hawley Montgomery-Downs, a sleep expert and an associate professor of psychology at West Virginia University. “They’re telling people they sleep better than they do.”

Additionally, she said, no federal regulations or standards govern the sleep tech niche.

“The industry is screaming for grown-ups to come along,” she said. “But sleep is sexy and lucrative. So people need to ask questions about empirical evidence for these apps.”

Experts add that sleep apps also collect lots of data that is not then interpreted. “The devices can show you when you’re awake,” Dr. Kline said. “But they don’t tell you why. So the technology can’t help consumers fix all their sleep problems.”

In the sleep field, wearables may be the toughest sell. “People don’t want to wear wearables at night because most people take technology off,” said Mr. Proud, who also tried out his product, Sense, as a wearable. “Silicon Valley is arrogant and gets it wrong sometimes.”

Barak Kassar’s experience with a wearable is a case in point. When worn at night, it gathered sleep data and sent it to an app.

But Mr. Kassar quickly found out that the data collected wasn’t useful. He learned “that I wake up in the middle of the night, which showed up on the graph on my phone,” he said. “But I already knew that.” Now he wears the modernistic-looking device as jewelry.

However, recent research does show that online cognitive behavior therapies can help restore sleep. After Peter Hames developed insomnia, his doctor in England prescribed sleeping pills.

“Drugs have had a monopoly on evidence-based health care,” Mr. Hames said. Instead, he turned to a course in cognitive behavior therapy developed by an expert, which cured him in six weeks.

So Mr. Hames and others founded the digital health start-up Big Health and created Sleepio, an online sleep improvement program that uses a virtual therapist. Cognitive behavior therapy was shown to have good results in peer-reviewed trials in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. And a report in the JAMA Psychiatry journal found that insomniacs could benefit from cognitive behavior therapy.

So far, the company has raised $15 million from backers like Kaiser Permanente Ventures and Octopus Ventures, based in London. It has a 25-person team, including three clinical researchers. Clients include big employers like LinkedIn and Comcast, which pay for a year’s access.

“We synthesize the world’s best experts,” he said. “Other apps have been toys, not true medicine.”