Sweet dreams with Sleepio

Like many entrepreneurs Peter Hames had a problem to solve and ended creating a business out of the solution. His problem was insomnia and the business is Sleepio. He told Toni Sekinah exactly how cured himself and decided to share his solution with the world.


Peter Hames set up Big Health in 2010 which creates evidence based digital behavioural medicine programmes for reducing insomnia. The company raised $3.3m in series A investment in April 2014 from investors including Index Ventures, Forward Partners and Esther Dyson.

Hames set up Big Health because he could not get a good nights’ sleep. The NHS estimates that up to 1/3 of people suffer episodes of insomnia.

To solve this problem “one of the worst experiences of his life”, he went to his GP hoping for CBT but was instead given sleeping pills.

Hames has an MA in Experimental Psychology and a sister who is a psychologist so he knew that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT could help him overcome his nocturnal predicament.

The pills gave him a chemical hangover and so in desperation he turned to a self-help book written by sleep expert Dr Colin Espie, who has been researching sleep for 30 years ‘Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems’.

The techniques and exercises prescribed by this book were so effective that Hames was totally cured within six weeks.

Beyond just celebrating his own achievement, Hames then thought about all the other insomnia suffers who may not have known about CBT and were taking the sleeping pills prescribed by their doctor because they did not know about anything else.

“That was obviously a very amazing experience personally but it opened my eyes to this totally insane situation which is that billions of people world wide are suffering from problems for which we have behavioural solutions.”

Hames asked himself the question ‘Can we use technology to deliver evidence based medicine like CBT to people in a way that is scalable and affordable?’

He knew he would need to bring Prof Espie on board, so he called him up and pestered him until he agreed to meet. The two met in Glasgow and Espie became the co-founder of BigHealth.

Sleepio, a digital sleep improvement programme, was the natural first product for BigHealth due to Prof Espie’s standing as a global expert in sleep and Hames’ own experience of sleep problems.

Sleepio can be integrated with wearable technology and was one of Jawbone’s API launch partners. Users can also use a Fitbit to measure their sleep patters.

So how does it work? “It’s fully automated, it’s very highly tailored to each individual and driven by quantified data so hence the connection with Jawbone and Fitbit from which we pull your sleep data and use that automatically tailor the programme to you,” said Hames.

The mobile app is free to download but to access the full programme users need to subscribe for one week, for six weeks or for a full year.

Sleepio was also built to be engaging with ‘the Prof’ and his narcoleptic dog Pavlov guiding the users. The Prof’s Scottish accent was tested with UK audiences and was  chosen for having the right mix of being friendly and approachable and no-nonsense and down to earth.

Users log on once a week to Sleepio.com to meet the virtual sleep expert, the Prof will give a personalised session designed to help each person overcome their particular sleep problems, the prof gives the person a toolkit to use during the week and give access to the community. Users have to keep a sleep diary and once a week log on and go through the diary. Week by week, they will learn a new technique and Sleepio helps users to build up a new sleep pattern. It looks at four things; thought schedule, lifestyle and bedroom.Sleepio has been clinically tested using a placebo controlled clinical trial 75% of poor sleeper improved their sleep.

It has many positive reviews from users and an online community where graduates provide support to those still going through the programme. In fact, 87% of the people who have used it would recommend it to a friend. Sleepio even won the startup competition at Wired Health.

Big Health has expanded to the United States and now has an office in San Francisco where Hames now spends 6 months of the year as there is a lot of “energy and innovation out there”.  Sleepio has launched in the US where it got to number three on the App Store Health and Fitness chart.  Hames said that audiences there perceive the Prof as intelligent and quirky. Back in the UK, Sleepio is forging relationships with organisations such as BUPA.

The founding team was built through networking with friends of friends or contacts of contacts who have been recommended and all have an understanding of the problems Big Health is trying to address.

Though he wouldn’t reveal the number of users, he  did say that over 1 million hours and counting of sleep data has been recorded with this number increasing since the release of the app.

BigHealth has had two rounds of funding, with seed from angels including Esther Dyson, and more recently a series A round of $3.3m led by Index Ventures with co-investing from Forward Partners.

What other health problems Big Health can help tackle in the future? Hames says the opportunities are vast, especially with chronic problems where there is evidence to show that non-drug interventions are more effective than pharmaceuticals.

“So other conditions that applies to are anxiety, depression, even smoking cessation. Behavioural interventions we know are more effective.”

Hames is not a first time entrepreneur, having cut his teeth when he and a school friend created a nomadic art gallery with the vision of productizing and democratizing art. “I learnt an enormous amount from that process. It’s an immersive thing, running a business so there’s no other way of getting that array of experiences than just doing it.”

*The first version of this article was published in October 2014 on TechCityinsider.

Citizen science and patient data with uMotif

The founders of uMotif, a software platform that allows patients with long-term conditions to record information relating to their health, are seeking to simultaneously create a social impact and a big business. Chief executive Bruce Hellman tells Toni Sekinah how they are doing that and about the massive citizen science project they will soon be launching.


Is it true that some people can feel it in their bones when bad weather is on the way?

Bruce Hellman is hoping to find out through one the projects of his healthtech software platform uMotif.

A small group of patients in Manchester with rheumatoid arthritis are using the uMotif app to record the stiffness and swelling in their joints. This data is being correlated with the weather datain the patient’s local area to see if there is indeed a link between weather and joint pain.

“We’ll do a mashup that answers that old wives’ tales. For the first time we’ll be able to scientifically show whether people’s joints swell when it rains or knees stiffen when the pressure goes up or down,” says Hellman.

When the patient goes for their next appointment, they’ll be able to show their health practitioner an accurate record of the severity of the symptoms since they last saw them.

This is one of the main aims of uMotif. The mobile and web app allows patients with ongoing conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes to track the data of different aspects of their health.

This empowers them to manage their own care and monitor their conditions. The information can also be shared with their clinician who then has a clearer idea of how their patients are doing between appointments.

“We can bank online, shop online, book flights online. It is unbelievable and astounding that in 2015 you can get discharged from hospital with no digital journey. It’s what we’d expect from every other industry so that’s the gap we’re hoping to fill,” says Hellman.

The uMotif platform is modular and so can be customised for patient groups with 13 different clinical conditions. “It’s built like a Lego building kit,” explains Hellman. “We can take different blocks or modules and set those up in different ways for different clients.”

He gives the example of Parkinson’s for which the platform will track tremors and fluidity while for people recovering from heart failure uMotif tracks dizziness and breathlessness.

“The unique uMotif interface is nice, bright and visual and this allows you to score yourself subjectively on aspects of daily health,” says Hellman.

The user inputs this information by swiping their finger across a petal of uMotif’s flower icon. Each petal records a different aspect of health such as energy level, weight, blood pressure or sleep quality. uMotif runs on the LAMP stack, is written in PHP and uses the MySQL database.

Hellman stresses the fact that the patients are the owners of their data. “Data is not being sold off to insurers or for ad retargeting because that’s just not cool.”

“What is common to almost all patients is the need to follow some sort of regime; doing your exercises, taking your medication, doing your meditation,” he says.

uMotif helps patients to stick to their regimes by setting off alarms to remind them to take their medication.

“Every year in Europe 100,000 people die because of not taking their meds and the financial costs are huge,” says Hellman.

uMotif can also connect with sensors and wearable technology devices to capture information like number of steps taken and hours of deep sleep but this is completely optional. “One patient may have a Fitbit tracker and would love to be able to bring in their number of steps and compare that with their mood and other people would not want that at all.”

Hellman falls into the category of a wearable wearer. When his son was born three years ago, he wanted to see how badly the little one affected his own sleep. He did this with devices like the Fitbit and Jawbone and this sparked ideas for other forms of health tracking.

At a nursery Christmas party he met Ben James, the father of one of his son’s playmates, who happens to be a programmer and designer. Together they developed the ideas Hellman had come up with about health tracking.

In 2012 the two encountered The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, a charity with the mission to find a cure for Parkinson’s and realised the technology they had for general health tracking could really help people who are managing a serious condition.

With a grant of £75,000 from the Small Business Research Initiative they built their first prototype and worked with a group of patients from the charity.

“So rather than being fairly generic and broad for everyone, we focused on people with chronic and serious health conditions and thought about how we could create technology that helps them better manage their condition, improve their quality of life and treatment outcomes,” Hellman says.

The uMotif team has grown to 13 people and includes doctors, designers, computer programmers and business professionals. Dr Rashmi Narayana, who Hellman met while doing a part-time MBA at Imperial College London is the clinical and evidence director. “It’s important to have a doctor in the team. It brings everything back to patients and clinical impact,” says Hellman.

The app is free for patients but the public or private healthcare provider has to buy a license from uMotif.

Most of those healthcare providers are trusts in the UK such as Liverpool Chest and Heart Hospital and St George’s Healthcare in south London but there are also clients in the UK and Australia.

uMotif works with 45 healthcare providers in total who can put their badge on their version of the app and choose which modules they want for their patients.

uMotif is also working with tech giant Philips in Chester and Bristol to deploy a more general health tracking version of the platform for people who are not managing a long-term condition. “There are things that are common to everybody – keeping track of how you are doing, setting yourself goals and achieving them,” Hellman says.

On a grander scale, in November uMotif will be launching a global citizen science project. “It’s for everybody to participate in, whether you are managing a condition or not. We’re aiming for 100,000 people to use our app and their wearable device to track themselves for 100 days.” The goal is for people to learn important stuff about themselves and donate their data for free to academic research.

“There will be a data set of 10 million person days and researchers across the world will hopefully be able to unlock some new insights about health and health self-management,” says Hellman.

In spite of the fact that such a project could spur health benefits and insights for people all over the world Hellman emphasises the focus that uMotif places on assisting the individual.

“The thing that is quite exciting for us is that you start from individuals, from people solving real problems for real people. We’re making a difference for people’s lives which is fantastic.”

*This article was first published in August 2015 on TechCityinsider.

Getting down with the Digital Mums

Digital Mums is giving mothers the skills to move into flexible and mobile world of social media management. Co-founder Kathryn Tyler tells Toni Sekinah why her team excited by video platform Touchcast and how her desire for a dog ignited her entrepreneurial spark.

Kathryn Tyler headshot

Ten-year-old Twitter has transformed the way that companies acquire, interact and build relationships with their customers.

As businesses have realised its value – along with that of Facebook and Instagram – in forging connections with their clientele, a new job has been created, the social media manager.

The job is demanding as social media managers must be customer-oriented content creators but it does have the advantage of being having flexible hours. This makes it an ideal position for women with childcare responsibilities.

Online learning provider Digital Mums is training up unemployed mothers to become effective social media managers for small and medium enterprises.

The students undertake one of two six-month training courses. The Strategic Social Media Management Programme is for women who relevant transferable experience, gained from working in PR, journalism, marketing, communications or digital media and the confidence to work with a brand straightaway.

Those who gained experience in other industries can enroll on the Community Manager Course. These women create their own grassroots social campaign on an issue they are passionate about with lots of support from DMHQ.

One mother developed a campaign around buying healthy food locally while another, on the strategic programme, ran the feed of support network Parent Hub, amassing nearly 1,000 followers.

Tyler says that a “huge amount of hand holding that goes on” on the courses. “They’ll set up a Twitter, Facebook and Instagram page, just in the same way they would for a business. They have to reach influencers and think about content strategy.”

The course teaches the students how to inspire an emotional response from their audience and spread a message with humour and a human touch, according to former student and current social impact officer at Digital Mums, Tasneem Sherram.

The course is delivered online and the Digital Mums teams stays on top of all the latest trends in terms of solutions that can facilitate the remote training of its students.

Tyler says that Moodle, a learning management system “with a clever user interface,” hosts the learning resources while Google+ Communities is the ideal location for the student forums.

The most recent addition to Digital Mums’ array of technological tools is Touchcast. “It’s an interactive video technology platform and we’re really excited about it because we’re the only small business they’re working with at the moment.”

Touchcast, a medium is intertwines the web into video, allows users to create videos with links to other resources like Word documents, PDF files, even other videos, is being used by large organisations such as the BBC and the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s going to take our training resources to the next level,” says Tyler adding that Touchcast videos have already replaced the Digital Mums email newsletter.

Eighty per cent of the 20-strong team works remotely so they keep in close contact with each other using the Slack messaging app.

The live apprenticeship costs £2,000 while the social media campaign course costs £1,250. Tyler and Cochrane also charge businesses that come to them looking for freelance social managers a fee of between £500 and £1,000.

The company took a £50,000 loan from Big Issue Invest, which assists entrepreneurs who have founded businesses with a social mission. “The terms are very favourable, we only pay it back if we make money and we plan to pay it back early,” says Tyler.

Digital Mums has also just closed a round £200,000 private equity round from four private investors including a social impact programme, Big Venture Challenge.

Like many startups Digitals Mums in its present iteration is not what the founders set out to create.

It is an offshoot of a social media agency Tyler and Cochrane set up when they became unsatisfied with their previous jobs. Tyler felt she wasn’t being sufficiently challenged as the head of digital at Innovation Unit and Cochrane was working at M&C Saatchi but really wanted to work for herself.

“We thought that we’d love to set up our own business. I wanted to be my own boss so I could have the flexibility to get a dog and Nikki had just had enough of having bosses,” says Tyler.

They wanted to create a commercial venture with a social mission and so set up the agency to specifically train and do consultancy work with small businesses in social media management.

However while the consultancy and training was welcomed, they kept being requested to actually run the Twitter feeds of the SMEs. The pair tried running the feeds themselves but found they could handle a maximum of three at one time without going mad.

Tyler and Cochrane thought about bringing in young people to run the social media feeds. The unemployment rate among young people is 14.4%, almost triple the rate of the total working population, so hiring them would have been in line with the social mission of the company.

But weren’t sure they could convince small businesses to let young adults take control of their social media accounts.

Then they came up with the idea of working with mothers instead and so did some market research. They found that women with kids are more active on social media than most people and lots of businesses are marketing to mums.

“We thought it just makes sense and it went from there. The social media agency was like the unloved child and everyone loved Digital Mums,” says Tyler.

Tyler and Cochrane also both have a personal reason is focusing their support on mothers – they have experienced the effects of maternal unemployment first hand.

“Our mums were unemployed so we have a really personal connection to the problem that we’re solving,” says Tyler. Though decades have passed since then, the situation for working mothers is still very challenging.

Mothers-to-be sometimes experience workplace discrimination from the moment they announce their pregnancy as documented on Pregnant then Screwed. It states that 54,000 females a year are forced out of their jobs.

According to the Fawcett Society, 12.5% of women in low paid work – which is often the most flexible – are on zero hours contracts. Furthermore for many families childcare is so prohibitively expensive that many mothers are not any better off financially if they go to work.

These are the issues Digital Mums was set up to tackle when it was officially incorporated in 2013.

To date Digital Mums has helped 300 mothers change their working lives and by this time next year Tyler says they would have helped 1,000.

The founders are looking to extend the geographical reach of Digital Mums and are moving into cities like Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester as well as overseas.

“We’ll be taking Digital Mums to moms in the US. They’ve got an even bigger problem around flexible working than we have here,” says Tyler. They’ve also received requests to take DM to Slovenia, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia.

“We’re basically looking to do global domination within the next three years.” No doubt Cooper, Tyler’s pitbull terrier will be alongside every step of the way.

*This article was first published in March 2016 on TechCityinsider.