Sleep problems are epidemic in our society. The overnight sleep study, a standard tool for diagnosing those problems, has a tragic flaw: spending the night in a sleep lab hooked up to machines is utterly unconducive to sleeping, even for people without sleep problems.

A sleep specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital brought this conundrum to a class of senior-level engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall of 2010, where it caught the imagination of several of the students. By spring, they had created a company to fully develop the technologies they came up with.

These self-confessed “crazy tinkerers,” now MIT graduates, will describe how Rest Devices, Boston, combines thin-film technology, Wi-Fi, and sophisticated data analysis to create a device that could transform sleep monitoring, as well as a company to market products based on the device.

Co-founder Thomas Lipoma will talk about the company’s ability to develop products quickly and change direction on a dime—a sharp contrast to the long development cycles typical of large drug and device companies.

“We do a lot of in-house prototyping and write our own code, so we can develop a product in one or two months,” he says.

Rest Devices is working on two products. The first, a onesie for infants, has embedded sensors that collect respiration data, which is sent through the home wi-fi network to the company’s servers. They can then send an alert to the parent’s smartphone if the baby wakes up, is too hot or too cold, or stops breathing even briefly. Lipoma expects to market it directly to parents.

The second is a sleep-monitoring shirt for adults, meant to replace the dreaded sleep study. The shirt is washable and can collect up to seven nights of data. It measures both respiration and movement, and can detect sleep apnea with 94 percent accuracy, according to the company’s research.

Lipoma says Rest Devices has been running on $500,000 worth of angel investment so far, and is now looking for additional funding and partnerships. The hard part is ahead: going through trials for FDA approval. The company is proceeding cautiously until it’s clear how best to use both devices. Insurance companies have expressed great interest in the sleep shirt because of its potential to cut the cost of sleep studies while increasing their effectiveness, but Lipoma says the reimbursement environment for sleep problems is changing rapidly. The company wants to be surer of its market, and perhaps find a partner, before going for regulatory approval.

As for the onesie, Rest Devices is supplying it to researchers for now. “We want to nail down the use case before we go the FDA,” Lipoma says.

Educational session #82, “Healthcare Gets Scrappy: Can Startups Change the System?” is scheduled for 1 pm on March 5.


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