The scene starts inside a magic snow globe. It’s a world punctuated by white-powered trees, a fast-flowing brook, a bright, gray sky. There’s soft, meditative music humming in the background. With a simple, deep breath, flurries slowly fall to the ground.
The whole thing plays out in minutes, all from the comforts of your own living room. The globe, one of more than a dozen “experiences” available on an app called Healium, is said to be the first “immersive media” product powered by the body’s own electricity, namely heart rate and brain waves. Using wearables, like an Oculus Go, EEG headband or Apple Watch, users can control their selected world.
Sarah Hill, Healium’s CEO, founded the company five years ago, initially as a tool for veterans. It’s seen a boost amid the pandemic. Most recently, the small startup, headquartered in Columbia, Missouri, caught the eye of P&G Ventures, the internal, early-stage startup studio for the global consumer products giant Procter & Gamble. Healium typically targets its product to small business and enterprises, but it thinks P&G could help get the app into the hands of the everyday consumer, and not in the way you might think.
Seeing Your Stress
Healium, the company said, is part neuroscience, part storytelling and part game design, where virtual and augmented reality can help people self-manage anxiety and stress. It goes beyond traditional meditation; Healium is powered the body’s electricity through wearables like VR goggles, a brain-sensing headband or an Apple Watch (note: you don’t need wearables to experience Healium, just your smartphone, but, Hill said, “it’s way cooler if you do”).
A user can choose from a variety of “experiences,” a beach, a forest or inside a snow globe, and if using a wearable, control those environments – by growing flowers, for example, or hatching holographic butterflies – through brain patterns or by lowering their heart rate.
The idea is that your thoughts have power. That you can control your environment, Hill said. Lower your heart rate, for example, or increase your focus, and more flowers grow. In studies, Healium has been shown to reduce moderate anxiety by a third in as little as four minutes.
“You might liken Healium to a warm bath or a walk in the park when you physically can’t take a walk in the park,” Hill said. “It offers a unique solution that has never been given to users before – the ability to see their feelings. With stress management, that’s a huge issue, the fact we cannot see our stress internally. Healium allows you to not only see it, but control it.”
Hill, a former TV journalist, developed her Healium for herself – but also for the millions of others who struggle with stress and anxiety. For her, years of covering trauma like rapes, murders and natural disasters took its toll.
In 2015, she founded StoryUP, the maker of Healium. At first, the virtual experiences were tailored to terminally ill World War I veterans unable to physically travel to their memorials in Washington, D.C.
“We noticed these experiences were affecting their physiology,” Hill said. “They weren’t just watching these experiences; they were feeling them.”
Healium’s biggest strength is that it offers a drugless solution to stress. Even pre-Covid-19, stress cost U.S. industries more than $300 billion annually, when accounting for absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and the like. Stress is responsible for 60 percent of illness and disease. It’s a common risk factor for addiction and suicide, both of which are on the rise (Healium, on its website, does note that it is not a diagnostic tool, nor replacement for medication, counseling or therapy).
“Quite frankly, we are in the midst of a mental health emergency and a greater pandemic in the wake of Covid,” Hill said. “Calls to mental health hotlines have doubled. Stress is a people killer. People are looking for a drugless way to escape. We [at Healium] have seen an increase in the number of subscribers, emails, interaction on our social sites. People are looking for ways to quickly downshift their nervous system. There are a lot of different emerging platforms and instances that make what we’re building relevant.”
Perhaps it’s the perfect storm. Not only are people desperate for a drugless solution, but combined with the rise of wearables – there are more than 225 million on the market – and the advent of consumer EEG – earbuds that can send readouts of electrical activity in the brain directly to your smartphone – Healium could be in a strong position.
At least P&G seems to think so. P&G Ventures recently held a Virtual Innovation Challenge, and Healium took first place in the online pitch contest. P&G Ventures is searching for innovative ideas in categories atypical to P&G, which is responsible for mainstays like Tide, Charmin and Olay – instead, it wants to tap into areas like personal performance, chronic conditions, sleep, wellness, active aging and more.
Healium largely targets schools, hospitals, assisted living centers and more. But during the Innovation Challenge, the startup proposed forming a “digiceuticals aisle,” where everyday customers, when shopping at retailers like Walgreens or CVS, could also pick up drugless products, like Healium, for their mental well being.
Hill said her team is still exploring how that would work. But, essentially, a customer could pick up a card, or a passport, that includes a code for the app, and check it out at the register just like they would Kleenex, cold medicine or antacid.
“We are excited to see where Healium and the broader digiceuticals category could go next,” Leigh Radford, senior vice president and general manager, P&G Ventures, said in a release
Healium received a $10,000 cash prize for its win, the opportunity to partner with P&G Ventures and an invitation to join a nationally ranked accelerator with up to $200,000 in other benefits. The Challenge wrapped only a few weeks ago, and Hill wasn’t sure how the relationship would progress moving forward, but a partnership could help advance the digiceuticals idea more quickly.
“This is a great opportunity for a young company in the Midwest that doesn’t have a lot of access to exposure or capital to play in the sandbox,” Hill said. “Because we lack access, that’s forced us to build our company on paying customers with real revenue, which has afforded us some unique insights into how people are using our products. And companies in the Midwest, the way they raise is not necessarily from venture capital, but from angel groups and introductions around somebody’s kitchen table. That’s how businesses are built here. We’re delighted to have access to the global power that is P&G.”