13. November 2012–
Stressed? Students from Munich have developed a preventative early warning system for stress: SOMA Analytics. The smartphone app measures user parameters such as voice pitch, quality of sleep and motor skills as a prophylactic measure against burnout and depression.
Now, SOMA Analytics' alpha version has been picked up by London-based health accelerator Healthbox: the first German startup to achieve this. Does this innovative idea have the potential to become a sustainable business model in London?
SOMA Analytics: the anti-stress app developed in Munich
In Aldous Huxley's classic novel "Brave New World" the populace is permanently sedated by use of the drug SOMA. Widespread burnout? Unimaginable in Huxley's brave new world.
But in real life, depression is on the rise and the Munich-based team of SOMA Analytics has been applying its skills to the prevention of this problem for the past year. Their approach has been to develop an evidence-based app which will help to avoid the widespread use of narcotic drugs envisaged by Huxley.
The four founders of SOMA, Peter Schneider, Johann Huber, Christopher Lorenz and Fabian Alt, developed the technology for their preventative early warning system during their studies at Munich University. A native app alerts the smartphone user to the warning signs of excessive stress and enables him or her to take appropriate action at an early stage.
Naturally, the app is not in any way intended to replace medical or psychiatric treatment. Its purpose is to alert the user to a measurable increase in stress levels. "We cannot make a diagnosis, we are not doctors", says founder Christopher Lorenz. "But we believe we can make a useful contribution in this area using simple methods".
Health startups – a new wave in Europe
This product from SOMA Analytics will not only benefit the individual, but will play a part in finding a solution to an economical problem: the damage to the German economy alone as a result of stress-related illnesses was estimated at €364b in 2010 (Hamburg Institute of International Economics).
According to a prognosis by the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression will become the leading illness in industrial nations by 2030.
SOMA Analytics believes that earlier treatment could prevent this prognosis becoming reality: "GPs only have a success rate of 50 per cent when diagnosing depression: a percentage no better than tossing a coin."
A few weeks ago, the German journal Gründerszene carried an article about the health hype in the German startup market. The widespread trend towards healthy eating, exercise and a sustainable lifestyle is not only reflected in e-commerce solutions such as Berlin's Coffee Circle or Hamburg's Avocado Store, but also SaaS models such as Düsseldorf startup Body IP.
After Gründerszene included an article on the US health accelerator Startup Health and speculated about the idea of a possible German spin-off, it was recently announced that the Boston-based health accelerator Healthbox is expanding its business with a new London base and will be supporting seven health startups there as from this autumn. SOMA Analytics will be the only German team involved.
How SOMA Analytics impressed Healthbox in London
The US health accelerator Healthbox is heading for London and the young German team from SOMA Analytics has secured itself one of the first seven places.
Healthbox supports startups for a fixed period of time with financial backing, networking and office space, using a business model similar to that of the German accelerator HackFwd, which belongs to Xing founder Lars Hinrichs. The health market presents particular challenges for founders: the initial hurdles to be overcome are higher than in other online markets, since innovation and sales cycles tend to be longer in this particular area.
Healthbox, in contrast to the health accelerator Startuphealth, only offers support for three months, not for three years, and focuses on generic service products which do not require any in-depth legal assessment. Healthbox is providing the Munich team with offices in the hub of Westminster, epicentre of the London startup scene, as well as coaches and mentors from the health market.
At the same time, the accelerator is investing £50,000 in the fledgling company. "Our goal for the programme is to get a bigger investor on board" SOMA Analytics' Johann Huber says. "In our first week with Healthbox, our project has already received a significant boost, and we have made the acquaintance of first-class mentors."
Johann Huber and his team received initial funding from the Foundation of German Business as well as the Heinz Nixdorf Foundation as part of the startup initiative “The Challenge of Entrepreneurship”.
One of the main reasons why SOMA was able to convince the jury of the London accelerator was that they were able to demonstrate a solid scientific basis for their idea.
The founders have identified several parameters which alter in stressful situations, thus enabling the stress level of the users to be identified. One of these parameters is alterations in speech during phonecalls. According to SOMA founder Fabian Alt, a high level of stress directly correlates with a lower range of voice modulation.
Frequent typing errors on the part of the smartphone user are indicative of faulty hand-eye coordination, another stress level parameter.
The founders have also examined the relationship between sleep quality and stress levels in a Munich sleep laboratory and implemented the results in their software. If a smartphone is taken into the user's bed at night, this will enable the sensors to register data relating to sleep patterns and noise level.
"We spent several nights in the sleep laboratory in order to validate the sleep components", says Huber. "Afterwards, we compared the data measured by our app with the results delivered by the sleep laboratory's measuring equipment: our app proved to be very accurate".
At present the team is preparing a large-scale study in collaboration with a London sleep laboratory in order to scientifically verify the significance of sleep as a stress parameter.
Featured image credit: asleep at laptop by Flickr user Jean Pichot
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