"I think that life is full of surprises," says Dr. Anda Baharav when asked why she left a career as a hospital doctor at age 55 to found Sleeprate, a startup that treats sleep disorders. "The weight of the decision fell on me at the time, because my research partner and good friend, Prof. Solange Akselrod, head of the Abramson Institute of Medical Physics at Tel Aviv University, was very ill, and clearly had only a short time to live. It was very scary. I had doubts about what I could still learn at such an age. Today, however, at age 67, I feel much younger than I felt at age 30, thanks to my new beginning."
She always had the courage to change. In her youth, she thought about being a theoretical physicist. When she immigrated to Israel from Romania at age 19, she studied physics, but "during my studies for my degree, I realized that I didn't have the makings of a theoretical physicist," she says. "I'm not the Einstein I thought I was when I was 15. I thought I should turn to something in which I could contribute something to the world."
Since her mother was a pediatrician, Baharav thought that this was the right direction for her, and decided that she would study medicine after finishing her studies in physics. My mother was opposed. She said, 'You are choosing a very difficult life for yourself,' and she was right. My life, with my family, three children, and many years of emergency treatment for children, was not easy. My mother bore the burden, and helped a lot during those years."
Even when she was accepted as an intern at Rabin Medical Center (Beilinson Hospital), she was considered "too old" at age 32, an advanced age for an intern. The doctor who accepted her as an intern asked her, "Don't you think that this is masochistic? You have a degree in physics, you have two children, and now you'll start spending your nights here?"
But Baharav very much enjoyed her years in pediatrics. "Being on the front every day and 10 nights a week, fighting for children's health, and sometimes for their lives - to this day, I still have the urge to do this kind of work."
This period in her life was cut short by the relocation of her family to the US when her husband took a job there. "The world has changed since then," she explains. "I had a kind of idea that if one partner had more ambition than the other, this is what should be done. I wanted to be an excellent doctor, but I didn't allow myself to develop any ambition beyond that."
"To gather dust or jump into the water"
At this stage, she had to decide what to do in the US. She thought about become a pediatric pulmonary specialist, but it did not happen. In the course of her search, she visited a sleep laboratory. Fortunately for Baharav, she retained her knowledge of physics when she was studying medicine through her participation in research at the Institute of Medical Physics at Tel Aviv University. Things suddenly came together.
In the course of her physics studies, she researched the use of EKG as a non-invasive test of the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. It turned out that this subject was an exact fit for the sleep disturbances field. During her three years in the US, she founded a system of sleep specification using EKG.
When Baharav returned to Israel, she continued her research in the medical physics department. The department head, the late Prof. Akselrod, showed great interest in the subject, and much research was conducted in the department into sleep, fatigue, and pulse. In 2006, after 12 years, the research results accumulated appeared to be enough to for an application. "There were two options," Baharav says. "We could either conduct more studies that would gather dust or jump into the water."
She jumped into the water, but it was not easy. "People around me told me, 'OK, you have a few research results and several algorithms. Do you know the distance between that and a product?' In truth, our path was very unclear," Baharav admits. "Today, more and more people understand the damage that bad sleep causes, but back then, sleep solutions were far from the medical and modern cultural mainstream. Furthermore, in our culture, sleep is regarded as a luxury - a waste of time."
The first product that they built was software for diagnosing sleep and sleep apnea in a home environment with a device already in use - a Holter EKG (a small device attached to the patient for 24 or 48 hours). The product worked, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), those who used it were satisfied, "but economically, it didn't hold water. Sleep analyses alone aren't enough to maintain a company," Baharav says.
Three years later, in 2009, the technological environment also changed with the introduction of smartphones and sensitive every-day products, such as heartrate monitor straps for athletes. All the user had to do now was sleep with a heartrate monitor strap and a smartphone nearby. These two simple and available products were combined into a product capable of precisely analyzing the stages and quality of sleep, the patient's stress level, and so forth. When an application offering personalized solutions for better sleep is integrated with the product, it becomes even more interesting, but something was still missing.
The next stage began in 2013 following a meeting with sleep medicine personnel at Stanford University. They had a solution for sleep problems based on cognitive behavioral therapy, and the combination of Sleeprate's application, which provided objective measurement, and the subjective emotional part generated a winning product. "That's how we created an application that could provide personalized cognitive treatment, constantly accompany a person, and support him or her with suitable reminders and education," Baharav explains.
The application has been improved since, and is still being improved. It has been tried on 100,000 people worldwide to date, and 30% of the people who use it at any given time are paying users. Sleeprate has already aroused the interest of Royal Philips Electronics. In January, a cooperation agreement was signed by the startup with Philips's sleep division. The joint product is slated for launching this summer. Another field of activity is helping top athletes achieve optimal functioning and avoid injury through better sleep.
Sleeprate now has 25 employees, and this number will soon increase to 30. It has raised over $10 million from private investors, and is now preparing for a larger financing round. What about Baharav herself? "When we founded the company, outside of the dreams of doing new things, I told myself, 'You've played God enough in the emergency room.' I want to sleep more peacefully at night. An entrepreneur is a very active person, and I work around the clock, but it's not the same pressure as treating people."
"On the other hand, my personal situation today is different," she adds. "I'm a grandmother to five grandchildren, but I don't take care of them every day, and I can afford to work around the clock. Both my experience of life and patience that I have gained over the years help. At the same time, I'm also living now in the company of young people, some of them younger than my children, and I love their enthusiasm. There are many advantages to jumping into the water at an advanced age."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 30, 2019
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