In a survey conducted by the US Census Bureau during the first part of the Covid-19 pandemic, 24 percent of respondents reported symptoms of major depressive disorder and 30% reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder – in some cases double those of a previous survey in 2014.
A separate poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45% of US adults report that their emotional health has been negatively impacted due to stress over Covid-19.
Can Israeli technology help bring back some joy to a saddened world?
Yes, says Miri Polachek, CEO of the aptly named Joy Ventures, a combination venture capital firm and tech startup studio that focuses on funding and developing consumer products for emotional well-being.
Joy Ventures was founded in 2017 by Corundum Open Innovation, a Japanese VC that invests in Israeli tech companies. The goal: to develop wearables and apps that lower stress and enhance mood without pharmaceuticals.
Emotional well-being is a growing segment of the consumer technology space. It includes the bio-monitoring sensors built into FitBits and Apple Watches along with a rash of mindfulness and meditation apps.
“It’s for generally healthy individuals to enable them to feel good throughout the day in our highly stressful modern life,” Polachek tells ISRAEL21c.
Israel has an advantage when it comes to identifying and developing these types of technologies, Polachek adds, which was a big reason Corundum set up Joy Ventures.
“Israel has a cohesive, accessible and relatively small ecosystem” which brings together people from many different disciplines – neuroscientists, academics, entrepreneurs.
To get the most bang for the well-being buck, “we knew it wouldn’t be sufficient to be a traditional VC firm, waiting for companies to knock on our door,” Polachek continues. Instead, Joy Ventures set up programs to boost deal flow.
“We started funding academic research and early technology development,” Polachek explains. “We just launched an entrepreneur-in-residence program. We have an in-house idea bank where entrepreneurs can run with one of our ideas or come up with their own and cook it over a six- to eight-month process.”
Joy Ventures also offers a month-and-a-half course called Joy Makers, where teams come together to create new projects, and Joy Studios, which runs ideation courses with academic institutions like the Holon Institute of Technology, working with students to brainstorm new ideas.
In the company’s 10-person Herzliya office is the Joy Jungle, which allows entrepreneurs to experiment with products that are already on the market, Polachek says.
“We have a very open and welcoming attitude. Anyone can come in and meet with the team.”
Five joyful companies
Joy Ventures has already funded some 36 research projects, as well as five companies, including:
Empathic Technologies, which has developed Doppel, a wrist-wearable device that generates a silent vibration that feels like a heartbeat. Slowing down the familiar “lub-dub” rhythm reduces stress, while speeding it up increases alertness and focus. Doppel’s haptic technology intervenes in the feedback loop between body and brain, “like a second skin,” the company claims. The first version of the device is now for sale online.
Reflect Innovation – another stress reducer, this time in the form of an interactive textile-covered “sphere” that uses biofeedback to help users practice relaxation and curb anxiety. As you grip the sphere – think of it as a kind of high-tech worry beads – it changes colors in response to signals from your body. An accompanying app gives you more control over your experience. The soft textiles make biofeedback more friendly than typical tech-heavy surroundings.
Vi Trainer – a conversational (and oft-times cheeky) fitness coach designed for runners. Vi uses the sensors on your phone to detect how you’re progressing, then motivates you through your headphones to push even harder. Feedback is real-time (“Oh, look at you, you’re perfectly on pace!”), lets you “compete” with others running at the same time, and grants you virtual rewards.
NYX Technologies (the name is pronounced “nix”) is developing a wearable headband, Cognyx, that uses EEG brainwave technology and artificial intelligence to generate personalized electrical pulses that stimulate improved sleep. Ophir Orenstein, the company’s CTO, has a degree in neuroscience from the Technion. A first version of Cognyx is due to be released later this year. The company has backing from IBM, Intel and the Israel Innovation Authority.
Sanga– a meditation app that helps you personalize a meditation program from world-class teachers. Algorithms help ensure that each day builds on your previous achievements.
Among the recipients of a Joy Ventures research grant is Prof. Amir Amedi, director of the Baruch Ivcher Institute for Brain, Cognition and Technology at IDC in Herzilya. Amedi is researching what areas of the brain are activated by meditation and how that interaction happens.
His research project will first examine MRI brain scans of people who have done more than 3,000 hours of meditation. After that, it will take people who have never meditated, give them a 40-hour meditation course, and see how their brains change.
“This type of research [has] elements of basic science yet also real potential for making emotional well-being more accessible,” says Hagit Alon, chief scientist at Joy Ventures.
Entrepreneurs in residence
Joy Ventures’ Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) program launched this summer with two experienced startup founders.
Shmulike Grizim previously founded web design and digital marketing platform Webydo, which was named by Forbes in 2014 as one of “five startups shaping the web economy.” Yair Nativ was one of the entrepreneurs behind Safe Lane, a mobile app designed to continuously film the road in order to record and report traffic violations.
Joy Ventures’ head of innovation Ron Gaby will manage the EIRs, who will receive a salary, workspace and pre-launch seed investment as needed.
“And they have our undivided attention!” Polachek says.
The EIR idea originally was intended to include a new founder every six months, but “then we realized, the more the merrier. Let them have a peer group to bounce ideas off each other. So, now we have rolling admissions.”
Polachek was born in Israel to Israeli parents who moved to Boston when she was young. She came back after university, then bounced between countries for a while, working in the healthcare industry including lengthy stints at pharmaceutical giants Teva and Pfizer. In 2011, she was appointed to run Israel Brain Technologies, a non-profit promoted by Shimon Peres to advance brain research. She was recruited from there to manage Joy Ventures.
Emotional well-being is important at any time but given the challenges of Covid-19, Joy Ventures may have found its sweet spot. To wit: the Calm meditation app has raised $116 million. Headspace, another mindfulness and meditation app, has closed over $200 million. in August, on-demand mental healthcare provider Ginger raised $50 million.
If Joy Ventures can use its own $50 million investment to tap into the wellness zeitgeist, it will have earned its little piece of joy.
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