How InteraXon plans to monetize meditation–and more

This Toronto tech startup is building consumer products aimed at unlocking the next big leap in human-computer interaction


Canada’s Most Innovative Companies 2016

A figure who sees a serene nature scene against a dark backdrop

(Illustration by Kevin Whipple)

It’s no surprise that a startup selling a brainwave-sensing headband that helps people meditate has a space at its Toronto headquarters dedicated entirely to chilling out. The room, replete with colourful pillows and special meditation cushions known as zafus, is where InteraXon’s staff can attend regular yoga and mindfulness classes. More important, the company requires every employee to attend a weekly session here to test and debug its flagship product, the Muse. InteraXon attributes a large part of its success to these meetings, which it calls Musing Jams.

The company’s headband is essentially a meditation coach. Muse works like an electroencephalogram (EEG), measuring the user’s brainwave activity and transmitting the data to an app. When your mind is at rest, the app plays audio of calm winds. When your mind begins to wander, the winds intensify to prompt you to refocus. At the end of a session, the Muse app tells you how well you performed and displays a graph of your brain’s activity. It’s a high-tech approach to an ancient practice, one that’s becoming more popular among busy professionals who recognize the benefits of meditation but don’t have time to attend a class. A recent survey by InteraXon showed that 52% of Americans currently meditate or would like to start, and 45 million people are keen on using technology to help. InteraXon may just be to meditation what Lululemon is to yoga. “In the future, we are going to help hundreds of thousands of people live happier, healthier lives with Muse,” says Ariel Garten, co-founder of InteraXon. Not only that, but the company is looking to take its low-cost EEG technology into entirely new fields.

InteraXon settled on the meditation market after many years of experimentation. In 2003, Garten, who has a background in neuroscience and design, was introduced to University of Toronto computer scientist Steve Mann and a student of his, Chris Aimone. Garten worked in Mann’s lab, where he had developed a rudimentary brain-computer interface. She was immediately taken by the concept and sought ways to deploy it in the real world. She and Aimone, along with friend Trevor Coleman, formed a startup in Coleman’s basement to find applications for the technology. They staged exhibitions in Toronto featuring a chair that would levitate as occupants relaxed their minds (it was attached to a motor-controlled winch) and set up an installation at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to allow attendees to simultaneously control lights at the CN Tower, Parliament Hill and Niagara Falls when they strapped on the company’s headband. “We had only five months and very little budget to pull it off,” recalls Garten. “It was an entirely unproven thing, and we pulled it off.”

The positive public response to the exhibition encouraged the company to get serious about commercializing the technology. By 2012, InteraXon realized the best use of its expertise would be to help people understand and improve their minds through meditation rather than controlling objects. From there, the team developed the Muse concept. The following year, several investors, including OMERS Ventures, put up $6 million to help bring Muse to market. It now retails for $299.99 through Amazon, Best Buy and Indigo. (Garten, who is six months pregnant, stepped down as CEO late last year in preparation for taking care of her newborn but remains on the board.)

Since hitting the market in September 2014, Muse has garnered a fan base that includes professional golfer Andrew Parr and celebrity Ashton Kutcher, who also invested in the company through his fund, A-Grade Investments. InteraXon says the headset brought in $3.5 million in revenue during the few months after its release and projects a 63% increase in annual sales this year over 2015. Alison Gibbins, a marketing leader at a startup called the Working Group in Toronto and a mom of two kids, considers herself a fan. She’s tried yoga, meditation apps and even a personal counsellor to keep herself centred in her fast-paced lifestyle, but nothing worked until her husband bought her a Muse for her birthday in 2014. “It’s become a part of my total health-care routine,” she says. “I actually prioritize my mind exercise over my physical exercise at this point, because Muse allows me to be more productive than going to the gym over lunchtime.”

The difference between Muse and other meditation apps is the constant feedback it provides. “Most busy people, after trying meditation, start wondering if they’re doing it right or whether it’s a good usage of their time,” Aimone says. “[Muse] makes people realize you can train your attention to improve. It’s not something you’re born with.”

Health and wellness providers are also interested in using the headband to treat anxiety and other conditions. A host of studies are currently underway at research institutions InteraXon has partnered with, including the University of Toronto, Rotman Research Institute and the Mayo Clinic (which is conducting a trial involving breast cancer patients). Meanwhile, Helix Healthcare Group, a private clinic based in Toronto, is running a pilot project to see if it can use Muse to help clients dealing with addiction, anxiety and depression. “The live EEG feedback Muse provides is so vital to helping our clients understand their conditions,” says Jesse Hanson, clinical director and co-founder of the centre. “A lot of the work we do here is psychology education, helping clients first and foremost understand how trauma is in the body.” So far, 30 clients have participated, and some whom have purchased a Muse afterward, according to Hanson.

Later this year, InteraXon is launching a dashboard for mental health professionals that will allow them to view their clients’ Muse data (with consent) to aid therapy sessions. If Helix’s experience with Muse proves successful, that could help InteraXon grow its customer base with health and wellness professionals.

But InteraXon isn’t stopping there. “Meditation is the tip of the iceberg,” says Derek Luke, who replaced Garten as CEO. (He previously served as InteraXon’s COO, after stints at BlackBerry and Sustainable Development Technology Canada.) “We need to create an infrastructure out there so that once we become successful in bringing meditation to the masses, we also have a rich platform underneath the water to tackle other verticals.”

Driver monitoring is the first of those verticals. InteraXon is adapting the Muse headband to detect drowsiness and distraction levels in drivers, and is targeting truck and auto insurance companies as potential customers. Current systems that use cameras to monitor drivers can only pick up changes in physical behaviour, which is potentially too late to avert problems. Luke argues InteraXon’s technology can prevent accidents from happening by identifying changes in cognitive performance early on and alerting drivers when they lose focus. The product is at least two years away from commercialization, according to Luke.

The ambitious plans are keeping Luke busy, but he views his mission at InteraXon in the broadest of terms. “In Canada, we have a really strong base of neuroscience,” he says. “I see this as a catalyst for commercializing something we’re good at.”


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