MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting are all body-focused repetitive behaviors that can have a huge impact on people's lives. A Minneapolis-based tech startup developed a smart bracelet to build awareness of these behaviors.
"HabitAware is a mental health technology company that helps people retrain their brain away from detrimental mental health disorders. So what I mean by that is things like hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting, which at their core are soothing mechanisms for stress and anxiety," said Aneela Idnani, co-founder of HabitAware.
Idnani has suffered from trichotillomania, a hair-pulling disorder, since she was in her tweens.
"I hid for 20 years until my husband caught me a couple years ago without eyebrows and he asked me where they were and I finally came clean with that secret," Idnani said.
Husband Sameer Kumar added, "A few weeks later she said, 'I wish I had something that alerted me when I was doing this behavior because it's so subconscious.'"
The couple teamed up with tech-savvy Kirk Klobe and John Pritchard to found the company, HabitAware, in 2016. The company's flagship product is a smart bracelet called "Keen."
"So the way Keen works is you wear the bracelet, you connect to the mobile app, and in a 30 second training process Keen is basically recording the scanning motions, the gesture that you do before you pick at your skin or before you pull a piece of hair out," Idnani explained.
Keen can also work for people dealing with thumb sucking. Whatever the habitual movement is, it's recorded. The next time it happens, the bracelet will vibrate to make the user aware of the behavior.
"That's shifting it from the subconscious to the conscious mind," Idnani said.
When the user engages in the behavior, they push a button on the bracelet to keep track of it.
"I was finally able to realize that late at night was one of my huge triggers and so my replacement strategy is to close the computer and go to sleep," Idnani said.
Idnani said she is now almost 99% pull free, adding, "I've completely regrown my eyebrows as well as my own self-confidence."
HabitAware is currently using a National Institutes of Health research grant to further develop the app.
"We are working to kind of fill that gap of, 'I'm aware, so now what do I do?' So we're working with well-renowned researchers in this space to build treatments into the mobile app that help people with that step of, 'How do I learn to truly move my hands away from this area and take care of myself in the way that I really need to?'" Idnani said.
Keen is resonating with people around the world. Since launching, they've sold more than 15,000 units to over 50 countries. Last year, HabitAware won The Minnesota Cup competition and Time magazine named Keen one of the best inventions of 2018.
Idnani said, "For me, I've come to realize that your purpose is coming from that pain."
You can buy a Keen bracelet on the HabitAware website. Depending on the style, it cost $149 or $179.