The Innovators Helping Us Sleep Better at Night

When Kelly Anderson’s baby was two months old, she tried to implement a sleep schedule. It didn’t work – in fact, the process “almost drove me to the brink of insanity”. Anderson gave up on the schedule but, six sleep-deprived months later, realized that she needed help.

She called Kate Cohen, a UK-based sleep consultant who helps families with young children get much-needed rest. Cohen looks at the household’s routine and drafts a sleep plan, a “kind of Bible” for parents to improve their child’s sleep patterns.

Expert advice like Cohen’s doesn’t come cheap: packages range from £50 ($65) for a one-off consultation through to £395 for a full package. Anderson feels it was worth it, saying: “We would pay again 100 times over.”

Since Cohen started her business two and a half years ago, she’s had over 250 clients. She’s not alone – sleep-related products and services are increasing rapidly as the world wakes up to how precious a commodity it is. Sleep is a multi-billion-dollar industry with innovations like pillow sprays, smart alarm clocks and white-noise earbuds vying to attract our attention.

Take the Casper mattress-in-a-box, launched in 2014. Customers could unroll the mattress in the comfort of their own home and then had 100 nights to decide if they liked it. If they didn’t, it would be picked up.

Philip Krim, one of Casper’s co-founders, says they set out to reinvent the mattress-buying experience, which he likened to buying a used car in a showroom.

“We all agreed that buying a mattress was one of the worst consumer experiences ever,” he says. “We just said this is such an important product of life, it makes such a big difference to people, there has to be a better way to shop for and buy these products.”

Investors seem to like the idea too: since its launch the business has raised over $240m (£185m) in venture capital funding. Countless other mattress-in-a-box brands have also sprung up but they still only reach a fraction of the market, not least because traditional showroom-based retailers have upped their game in response.

Many of these things are marketed with very, very little evidence base – Professor Russell Foster

One of the biggest mattress retailers in the UK, Dreams, has introduced a colour-coded system to help consumers understand different products better. They’ve even launched their own mattress-in-a-box for those who want that option. CEO Mike Logue acknowledges that people may feel a little odd trying out mattresses in a showroom in the middle of the day but says: “This is a very important purchase, get it right.”  

It’s not just mattresses, however. Companies are also looking at how wearable tech can be applied to sleep. Dreams has launched a sleep-tracking app called Napp, which is sold with a pebble-sized monitor that attaches to your bed linen and records things like movement, heart-rate and respiratory performance.  

It’s one of a range of products helping people analyse information so they can make choices – what time to go to bed, what temperature to keep their room at – geared towards a better night’s sleep. So far, so functional – but some of these products are aimed at a more discerning market. 

At first glance the Oura ring looks like a nice piece of jewellery. The band comes in silver, black or with a row of five diamonds down the front. But hidden within it are sensors that measure pulse waveform through the night. They take 250 samples a second, all aimed at calculating the quality of your sleep.

This produces a hypnogram which tells people how their sleep developed overnight, explains Harri Lahtela, sales director of Oura. Devices like this, he says, help us take sleep as seriously as we take exercise. He believes sleep’s role in our overall wellbeing has been ignored for years. “We’re very delighted that finally it’s starting to get the attention that it deserves,” he says.

Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, agrees, saying understanding of how sleep affects us has increased.

“What’s emerged over the last few years is that some really important things are going on within the brain. Our ability to consolidate memories, to process information, coming up with innovative solutions to complex problems are all really important functions within the brain at night,” he says. “In essence our ability to function during the day is defined by the quality of sleep we had at night.”

It’s also clear that failing to get enough sleep hits you hard. Prof Foster cites short-term consequences like failure to process information accurately and loss of attention as well as long-term health risks including suppression of the immune system and increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease and mental health issues.

People aren’t getting enough sleep and companies have woken up to the realisation that they have to do something about this – Christopher Lindholst
As awareness of the benefits of sleep grows, employers are paying attention. Christopher Lindholst’s company MetroNaps sells the EnergyPod, a kind of space-age reclining bed for employees to have a quick nap at work.

“People aren’t getting enough sleep and companies have woken up to the realisation that they have to do something about this,” Lindholst says. “Technology is keeping us awake, people are staying up late watching films, people are working longer hours.”  

MetroNaps was founded 15 years ago in New York and now sells in over 30 countries. One customer is global software company SAP, which has installed an EnergyPod in its Singapore office. Renate Janini Dohman, senior vice-president of human resources, says it has driven a cultural change among employees.

 “It’s acceptable in our culture that someone is taking care of him or herself, to be able then to be a better performer as they come back to their regular activities,” she says. And she sees a clear benefit to the organisation.

“We know that people are eight times more likely to be engaged or three times more likely to be productive when the company invests in the health and wellbeing of that employee, so it is important to consider that productivity rates are impacted when you have employees that are healthier.”

Prof Foster can see the cultural shift that’s happening in workplaces. “We’ve moved from the 80s when it was almost a badge of honour to come in and say: ‘I’ve done another all-nighter’, and you’d be slapped on the back. Now a responsive employer would say: ‘Go home, I don’t want you in the workplace’.”

But he warns that the sleep industry is young, and what actually works and what doesn’t remains to be seen. “Many of these things are marketed with very, very little evidence base and so as a scientist I kick back against this. However, if they work for you and they improve your sleep habits then I think you just take it on the chin,” he says.

After all, the world isn’t going to slow down any time soon. The sleep sector can only continue to grow as businesses offer us new ways to get the perfect night’s rest.  

“I think investors see sleep is becoming a real pillar of wellness, that the wellness trend is really only in its infancy and emerging,” says Krim of Casper. “Customers are going to continue to spend more and more on their sleep environment.” BBC

This article is adapted from Selling Sleep, an episode of Global Business presented by David Baker and produced by Smita Patel.