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.


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