The Science Of Sleep: What Does The Future Hold?

Long before “COVID-19” entered our daily vocabulary, there was another global pandemic affecting people around the world: a sleepless pandemic. 

In 2019, it meant as many as one-third of US adults weren’t getting enough sleep, leading to projections that the global sleep market would reach $84 billion by 2021

Now, as the lines become increasingly blurred between the office, gym, home and home school, the sector has been forced to adapt to the myriad of threats jeopardising a good night’s sleep. 

Here we track the latest innovation across the global sleep category, from smart headbands to responsible gaming, and predict what the bedrooms of the future will look, sound and feel like. 

Sleep X Home
Sleep has unquestionably become extremely lucrative, especially for Joy Ventures, a startup studio devoted to seeding and funding companies driving innovation in this area. 

For CEO Miri Polachek, the past decade has seen sleep tracking tools become far less passive. “Devices now actively intervene in our sleep cycles to promote better sleep,” she tells Welltodo. 

“Many of these technologies are tackling sleep issues such as bedroom temperature, disruptive noise or light, and sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea.” 

One of the trends Polachek believes will continue through 2021 and beyond is AI-powered devices. These learn a user’s sleep patterns and provide personalised insights and improvements to help optimise their bedtime. 

Notable examples include cooling and self-adjusting smart beds, with brands such as Eight Sleep and Sleep Number 360 paving the way. Both use sensors to track heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and sleep cycles, tinkering their settings to provide the best night’s sleep possible. 

Medical devices integrated with therapeutics is another fast-growing sleep tech category, adds Polachek, pointing to self-diagnostic specialists Itamar Medical and ResMed, that are both working to make sleep apnea a thing of the past. 

Sleep X Wearables
An area Polachek and Joy Ventures are especially excited about is wearables, pointing to one company within their portfolio in particular: Embr Labs. Its Wave bracelet uses thermal technology to improve sleep quality and help users fall asleep quicker by regulating the body’s temperature. 

Other wearables making waves in the sleep category are Oura Ring, which secured $28m in March last year and boasts Prince Harry as a fan, Fitbit Versa 2, which has dedicated features to track sleep quality, rather than just quantity, and also Whoop, the fitness tracker loved by elite athletes, which closed a $100 million Series E round in October

Another is NYX, a wearable headband launched in 2016, whose team are developing a neurotechnology that stimulates the brain to mimic the patterns that help users fall and stay asleep. 

The Science Of Sleep: What Does The Future Hold?
Image: Embr Labs

Sleep X Workplace Wellness
Sleep innovation isn’t merely restricted to the bedroom anymore either. 

Polacheck predicts sleep tech will play an increasingly prominent role in the workplace, with the pandemic sharpening employer focus on the health and wellbeing of staff. 

American lifestyle company Tory Burch has been quick to recognise this. In October it partnered with Whoop to provide a Strap 3.0 to 700 employees, noting its potential to spot early symptoms of COVID-19. 

In the UK, Swedish furniture company Ikea has similarly partnered with global experts Sleep School to help its employees get better sleep, and also educate its bedroom sales team on the role of comfort, noise levels and temperature. 

“We’re moving them from selling mattresses to better understanding what they’re selling,” Sleep School’s Co-Founder and Clinical Director Dr Guy Meadows tells Welltodo. 

Since 2011, Sleep School has pioneered the use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for chronic insomnia via private clinics and workshops. Its mission is to enable everyone in the world to live better by sleeping better naturally. Everything it does is non-drug based. 

The corporate wellness side of the business evolved organically in 2015, with organisations looking for ways to better support the wellbeing of their workforce at home. 

Before the pandemic, Dr Meadows would run corporate sleep programmes from New York to Hong Kong, with global banks especially reliant on its work. Now it’s all done virtually. “We’ve never been so busy,” he says.

“Even pre-Covid, we said we were going through a sleepless pandemic,” he continues. “Now stress, anxiety and depression have all been amplified. We also have new factors, such as homeschooling, financial insecurity, strains on relationships, loneliness and feeling detached. 

“The issues are multifactorial and they’re keeping us all awake at night.” 

Sleep X Mental Health
The Global Wellness Institute recently identified “senses, spaces and sleep” as a “goliath sub-segment” valued at $49.5 billion, as part of an emerging global mental wellness economy. 

That was based on pre-pandemic data. The true size of the mental wellness market – and therefore the number of sleep-based solutions – since the virus landed is likely to have grown exponentially, says Dr Chris Dickson. 

Dr Dickson is Executive Chairman of Cambridge Sleep Sciences, the research body behind SleepHub, a device which delivers sounds that trigger the brain to follow natural sleep patterns as you snooze. 

“Mental health and sleep are intrinsically linked,” he tells Welltodo. “COVID-19 has had a significant impact on how we are sleeping. The amount of people suffering from poor sleep has increased from about 30% of the population pre-pandemic to over 50% now.” 

The Science Of Sleep: What Does The Future Hold?
Image: SleepHub

Although he doesn’t expect the problem to disappear once the pandemic ends, he is optimistic that a greater focus will be put on general health, wellbeing and the prevention of poor sleep, with non-pharmaceutical therapeutic products leading the recovery. 

“Innovative sleep technology that can help restore natural sleep cycles, such as SleepHub, will play a fundamental role in getting the nation’s sleep habits back on track,” he says. 

“Sleep monitoring and sleep hygiene aids have dominated the industry in recent years. Now, non-pharmaceutical therapeutic products, driven by science-based software, that can actually improve both quantity and quality of sleep will be the next major contributor.” 

Sleep X Nutrition
Beyond the core sleep tech sector, we’re also seeing sleep innovation gathering pace in adjacent markets, and especially in nutrition. 

“The understanding of the relationship between nutrition and sleep has developed hugely over the past few years,” explains Shivraj Bassi, Founder and CEO of supplement brand Innermost.

“Traditionally, nutrition brands focused exclusively on performance and weight management. Now newer brands are challenging that narrow approach to offer nutrition solutions that represent a more holistic understanding of personal wellness.” 

Innermost is one among a new wave of nutrition brands pioneering the use of nootropics and adaptogens to support people with better stress management, cognitive performance and sleep. 

As the general public’s understanding of these ingredients starts to catch up with the “huge body of research” supporting their role in promoting deeper, more restful sleep, Bassi expects the wider nutrition market will start to take note. 

“Sleep affects our immunity, our mental health, tissue repair, brain health, endurance, absolutely everything we do depends on sleep,” he adds. “It’s the cornerstone of better personal wellbeing and we’ll continue to see nutrition brands recognise this.” 

The Science Of Sleep: What Does The Future Hold?
Image: Innermost

So what does the future hold?
From wearables and smart mattresses to nootropics and self-diagnostics, the sleep category has never been more crowded, yet Polachek believes there’s plenty of space for growth. 

“In most cases, companies are targeting different audience segments so there is definitely room for many players to grab market share,” she says. 

“At the same time, we’re seeing a rise in the number of people struggling with anxiety and stress and a cultural shift from the ‘hustle culture’ towards a healthier work-life balance that is increasingly focused on sleep quality.” 

As more and more people realise that healthy sleeping habits can promote wellbeing in other areas of their life, Polachek is sure consumer demand for more personalised solutions will spur on ever greater innovation. 

Dr Dickson is even more bullish on the growth potential of the sleep category. Largely as a consequence of COVID-19, he expects the sleep market will soon hold equal prominence alongside the heavyweights of the global wellness industry. 

“Over the next five to 10 years we expect to see the sleep market grow to the same size as the nutrition and exercise markets,” he says. 

“There is likely to be a huge spike in mental health issues post-pandemic. Technology-driven sleep management will rightly be a key part of the treatment and the sector will only grow and develop as a result.” 

Is smart sleep tech the solution?
Dr Meadows is confident the future of the sleep sector will be bright – or, rather, smart. 

“Smart lighting in the home holds real promise,” he says. “It’s a great example of how tech can help prepare the mind and body for sleep and wakefulness.” 

The gaming industry is undergoing a revolution too, with responsible gaming becoming more common, where users, and especially children, are incentivised and rewarded for not logging on for eight hours overnight. 

Another area he expects to explode will be in the advancement of sleep tracking – and not just on your Fitbit either. 

“In-home diagnostic testing for sleep apnea, snoring and restlessness will become much better,” he says. “It will automatically sync to a clinician, leading to a more joined-up, diagnostic process of stress and fatigue that will all be done from home.” 

For the longest time, tech has been silently eroding our sleep quality, with eyeballs glued to mobile phones, computer screens and TVs from dusk till dawn. “Finally, we’re starting to see tech provide a solution,” Dr Meadows says. 

As long as this is driven by peer-reviewed evidence and coupled with greater education, he’s hopeful future generations will be far better equipped to harness the power of a good night’s sleep. 

The Science Of Sleep: What Does The Future Hold?
Image: Wave

Sleep Innovation: The Brands To Watch 

Wave started out as an immersive meditation experience, but in January 2021 the company pivoted to sleep having noticed remedies had never been more in demand. Dubbed by some as The Peloton of Sleep Apps, Wave is fostering a sense of community around live scheduled bedtime classes. 

Launched in 2015, Sunrise is a smart sensor worn at the tip of the chin to diagnose sleep disorders. Having raised £4.8 million in collaboration with institutions including Imperial College London, the Belgian tech startup is aiming to make professional medical-grade sleep tests accessible to everyone. 

Originally an online entertainment platform dreamt up by the founder of Calm, Moshi has since evolved into the number one rated sleep and mindfulness audio app for kids. The company’s CEO has now set his sights on branching out to schools, hospitals, travel and workplaces. 

Sleep Hub
UK-based SleepHub uses neuroscience and sound tech to retrain the brain to sleep better. Backed by 10+ years of R&D, SleepHub is the first innovation from Cambridge Sleep Sciences Ltd, which in turn is part of the Life Sciences division of The Barkby Group PLC. 

Sleep School
Since 2011, Sleep School has been helping individuals and businesses to sleep better, naturally. Having recently launched an app, corporate clients range from Barclays and Deloitte to the NHS and City of London Police. 

One of a new wave of nutrition brands that are pioneering the use of nootropics and adaptogens across their nutritional supplement range to support people with better stress management, cognitive performance and sleep.