Andrew Persaud, a marketing co-ordinator with InteraXon, ushers me into a quiet room in the Toronto tech firm's head office and leads me through the drill: I slip InteraXon's Muse headband, which looks like a set of headphones, across my forehead. I also put on a pair of earbuds. I then "calibrate" the headband, which has seven tiny brainwave sensors and is linked by Bluetooth to an app on Persaud's iPhone. I hear questions through the earbuds and answer them—not aloud, but in my head. Meanwhile, the Muse sensors create a digital image of my mind.
For the next five minutes, I must close my eyes, breathe calmly and try to meditate by counting to 10 on each exhale. In the earbuds, there will be a soft sound of wind. But when the sensors detect brainwave patterns that suggest an active mind, they cue the audio and that wind sound will swell, signalling me to be more mindful about focusing. "This forces you to relax for a few minutes," Persaud explains. Paradox noted.
We start: I inhale. I count. My mind wanders hither and yon. One inane thought that ambles across my mind: I'm going to fail this meditation exercise (the sound swells on cue). After five minutes, however, I open my eyes and Persaud shows me my score on the Muse app. To my surprise, I stayed in the "calm" zone for 45% of the time, and even racked up 11 "birds" (a quiet chirping sound) for keeping tranquil for five seconds. It's a "gamification" feature, Persaud adds. "It's kind of meta to provide that bonus. Your mind is going to want more birds."
The 56-employee company is surfing a wave of fascination with meditation and mindfulness in a time of digital distractions. Founded in 2007, InteraXon does all its marketing and R&D in Toronto, while the headbands are made in China. Retailers like Best Buy, Indigo and electronics specialist Fry's sell the $300 device. The company also pitches Muse in markets such as corporate wellness, health care and even golf. Since 2013, InteraXon has raised $17.2 million in two financing rounds, but remains privately held and is not looking for a buyer—yet. "This is hard R&D," says angel investor Daniel Debow, a backer. "As an investor, it's a pretty exciting thing."
Prominent tech execs like Google's Chade-Meng Tan have sung the praises of mindfulness in boosting corporate performance. With recent neuropsychological research confirming the benefits of meditation, many entrepreneurs have raced into the burgeoning brain health sector, which includes rapidly growing online services as well as wearables like Muse and its competitor, Insight.
InteraXon co-founder Ariel Garten, a 35-year-old neuroscientist and psychotherapist, says her firm had revenues of $3.5 million from Muse in the second half of 2014, and has asserted that she wants to reach $500 million in sales. "Over the last year," she says, "the tide has turned so dramatically." Elliott Chun, a Best Buy Canada spokesperson, says the entire wearable devices category—everything from Fitbit and GoPro to medical gadgets and the Apple Watch—has shown significant growth.
Muse targets the highly pressurized 35-to-45 age bracket. Hugo Alves, a Bay Street lawyer, uses Muse to help him meditate for 10 minutes late in the afternoon—an interval between the treadmill of daytime meetings and the evening catch-up work that awaits him. "My day lasts from 9 a.m. to midnight," Alves says. "It sucks. On days I use Muse, I find I am able to be more focused and a bit less scattered."
The company more or less stumbled into this lucrative Zen zone. In her days as a scientist, Garten worked with Steve Mann, a renowned University of Toronto computing engineer and wearables pioneer. That research led to the commercialization of the sensors in the headband. But early applications seemed like a solution in search of a problem.
Four years ago, Garten's fellow founders, Trevor Coleman and Chris Aimone, were working on a "cognitive wizard game" that rewarded players for playing intuitively. Aimone suggested they use the sensors to measure that state of mind. "Maybe we could have rumble strips for meditation," Aimone mused one day. Recalls Coleman, "I said, 'That's it!' That changed the entire thinking about the product."
InteraXon retooled the headband and developed the Muse app. In a de rigueur move for tech entrepreneurs, Garten started doing TED talks. Expressive and animated, Garten admits she was the sort of kid who was a keener for high-school drama. Those talks, she adds, "were clearly pivotal to our success."
The road show led Garten to Austin's South by Southwest festival in 2013, and to audiences with celebrity investors such as Tan and actor Ashton Kutcher, who "said yes on the spot."
The question, of course, is whether Muse is merely a fad. It seems telling that Best Buy offers rebates for customers who want to swap yesterday's wearable for the next hot device. But Coleman predicts that Muse will prove to be more enduring than novelty-oriented devices like activity trackers. "It all comes back to delivering real value for people," Coleman declares. "What we've got going for us is that meditation is so inherently rewarding. If you stop, everything gets a bit worse."