Health

BioBeats: Musical mental health apps use your heartbeat to tackle stress

By Kitty Knowles 29 April 2016
Summary

Dr David Plans founded BioBeats after suffering a stress-related cardiac event: Now he makes incredible musical mental health products.

In the UK one if four people suffer from at least one psychiatric disorder.

We are not alone. The World Health Organisation has reported similar findings on a global level, and suggests that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden across the world.

Around 900K people commit suicide each year, and it is the second most common cause of death among young people.

Digital support

The outlook may sound bleak, but with the rising awareness, new digital businesses are finding ways to improve our own wellbeing every day.

BioBeats, which this week raised $2.28m, is one such company that’s fighting to improve our mental health, with online services and apps like Pulse, and Hear and Now.

These platforms use music and biometric data to empower people to manage their own stress and anxiety.

The Memo met founder Dr David Plans to find out why he created BioBeats, and how his services can help improve mental health around the world…

Dr David Plans, founder Biobeats. Pic: Felix Clay.
Dr David Plans, founder Biobeats. Pic: Felix Clay.

Kitty Knowles: What inspired you to create BioBeats?

Dr David Plans: I experienced a cardiac event during a particularly stressful period of my life whereby resuscitation in an ambulance was needed.

Luckily, they brought me back, but I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to change my lifestyle and outlook.

I tried, but found that the roots and causes of the actual stress and anxiety were in how I worked: I exhausted myself and went to the brink with it.

It inspired me to pivot in my research, towards understanding stress at the biometric level, and looking for insight where I could be of service: data science.

Read more: 6 health-inspired stories that stir the mind: The Wellcome Book Prize 2016

KK: So what is BioBeats?

DP: Managing anxiety and stress well is directly related to sleep efficiency and productivity.

Physical exercise, behavioural techniques and talking therapies can help, but BioBeats is a service that allows a person to understand their stress from psychometric, biometric and ambient data to become resilient and more productive.

BioBeats technologies would never replace human therapists, nor would I want it to.

Our aim is to create a tool for people who want to better or maintain their mental health that sits comfortably in the hands of users.

Read more: 5 of the best mental health apps

How can we use BioBeats in day-to-day life?

Our Hear and Now app (currently in beta) can be used to log and manage negative and positive stress in conjunction with talking therapies and anti-anxiety techniques.

In our deep breathing exercise, for example, we give the person biofeedback on how pushing on the diaphragm through breathing from the belly almost immediately has a relaxation effect.

An effect which the person can control, which is empowering.

Read more: 11 digital healthcare companies changing our world for the better

Meditation on BioBeats Pulse.

What role does music play in all this?

We call it ‘adaptive music’, and we use it as a biofeedback tool (we have others, like images sharpening as a result of breathing deeply).

First, we take your heart-rate [which is measured by users placing their thumb on their smartphone camera].

We map a musical tempo to the pace of your heart, so you immediately feel aligned, and then measure the distance between heartbeats and change the timbre and complexity of the music to match.

This tells the person whether, for example, they are managing to relax when doing a breathing exercise with us.

Right now we just produce one or two kinds of low-key, mellow electronic music that we think will help the user relax but, we previously (in an app called Pulse) generated anything from HipHop beats to other styles of electronica, and we will later this year release other packs and styles users can choose from.

Read more: Tinnitracks: Healing hearing problems with music

How else is BioBeats being used?

In organisations, our platform integrates with HR systems and productivity suites, delivering anonymous insights on workforce wellbeing and productivity, while delivering private, personalised coaching to employees.

This insight will increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, and reduce health cost claims impact.

We are also working with a few mobile network providers and brands to look at large-group interventions [like gigs] that would highlight mental health management.

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What lies ahead?

Our recent investment will enable us to complete our first randomised control trials with large corporate and insurance entities, and to explore international markets – starting with the US.

Our first app, Pulse, had about 100K users worldwide (in over 30 countries), and our current public beta of Hear and Now has about 30K, growing by about 15K a month. We expect to get about 100K users by May and then we will officially launch and market Hear and Now.

We’d like to reach our first million users within 2017.

We’re also working on internal projects, such as an autonomous therapeutic robot called the Breathing Stone, using the same backend technologies, which are being deployed in London and Surrey hospitals and specialist facilities in Denmark.

Its purpose is to teach the same stress and pain management techniques as our apps but without screens, using tactile, sonic and visual biofeedback.

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