A Pittsburgh company is hoping to lead the charge for a new generation of wearable technology.
By Jan. 31, the Uptown-based company, Apollo Neuroscience, will start shipping its flagship product. Worn around the wrist or ankle, the watch-like device called Apollo uses inaudible sound waves to calibrate mindfulness, mood and more.
Early adopters include doctors and their patients, athletes and those dealing with chronic stress, but the company aims to position the device as a holistic alternative to treatment relying heavily on prescription drugs.
“It is part of our natural human response, to use touch — this helps you sleep, this helps you focus. A lot of people use it to use less caffeine, less alcohol,” says Kathryn Fantauzzi, Apollo’s co-founder and CEO. “Honestly, as a CEO and an entrepreneur, the head of a startup — it is my superpower.”
The device, which retails after presale for $349, uses vibrations — some users say it feels like wearing an ocean wave — to mediate users between calmness and energized states.
“There’s a rich history of medical device organizations in Pittsburgh,” says Fantauzzi, who previously worked on a $20 million incubator fund at the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA). “Apollo is really sitting at a spot where it has the benefits of that rich history and expertise in engineering and business in that space, but also incorporates something that’s app-driven and user-driven. It all makes this technology very accessible and very simple.”
The company, whose multi-setting devices get to know users through a data-monitoring app on their iOS or Android phones, stresses that there’s sound research behind their claims. Apollo’s David Rabin, M.D., earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience, and then researched and developed the technology while in residency at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital in Oakland.
The Apollo wearable device also incorporates a special, highly durable plastic-like material developed by Covestro, which has U.S. offices in Pittsburgh’s airport corridor.
“The wearable required a material that withstands everyday products — such as lotions, perfumes and detergents — as well as drops and daily wear and tear,” according to a Covestro press release. The polyester blend from Covestro delivers the toughness and chemical resistance needed to create this durable yet lightweight device, they note.
The Apollo device was recently featured at the International Consumer Electronics Show trade show (CES) in Las Vegas, and has been worn and tested — at times in double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies — by more than 2,000 users, Rabin said.
“It visibly improves your heart-rate variability” — the time intervals between heartbeats, a key influence on mind-body connections — “and that correlates with performance under stress,” Rabin says.
Nurse practitioner Amy Edgar has seen the device work up-close. At the Children’s Integrated Center for Success, the practice she runs in Allentown, Pa., Edgar is wrapping up a yearlong study where she used the device with more than 100 children ages 6 to 17.
“One hundred percent of the kids we’ve used the Apollo device with report that they like the experience – there’s a likeability factor,” Edgar says, adding that more than 70 percent of the kids felt it was helpful and wanted to use it again.
Edgar sees enormous potential with the device for children and adults suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She also sees applications for diagnoses such as ADHD and anxiety. To illustrate, she describes one of her 12-year-old patients who could not sit still or stop interrupting her for an entire appointment.
“The first time she used the device, she sat and talked with me for 20 minutes,” Edgar says. “She was a different human.”
Joe Maroon — a UPMC clinical professor and Heindl Scholar in Neuroscience, as well as a neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers — is another early adopter. He sees extensive uses of the device for his pain patients but primarily uses it in his capacity as an ardent athlete. (He’s participated in eight Iron Man competitions and countless triathlons.)
“There are many devices to measure your heart-rate variability but the Apollo device is the only device I’m aware of that modulates heart-rate variability,” Maroon says. “At night, I put it on for 30 minutes and it calibrates my calmness and helps with sleep.”
Maroon also sees the device as something that’s very timely in Western healthcare.
“People who practice in this field want to get away from opioids, want to get away from a lot of drugs,” he says. “There’s now a big push toward mindfulness.”
Rabin likes to explain the mechanics behind the Apollo device in terms of music. There are rhythms to certain types of music — you wouldn’t think of mixing up the sounds you use to meditate with those you use at the gym.
“Music has a rhythm that helps nudge our bodies into a state of higher energy or lower energy — the music changes the body,” Rabin says. “We basically mathematically figured out what these rhythms had in common.”
“Now,” he adds, “this will be customized to you.”
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