🧠 Don't Sleep On This

The latest on the business of mental health and wellness

Welcome to On The Mind, a collection of stories, news, and analyses on the startups, investors, and thought leaders in mental health and wellness.

Here’s what’s included in issue No. 8:

  • Personalized sleep coaching startup working to get you more zzz’s

  • Look inside the glymphatic system and its relationship with sleep

  • Common sleep misconceptions and tactical sleep strategies

🎙️ Interview with Jingyun Fan, CEO of Shuni

Conversations with founders, investors, and thought leaders in mental health and wellness.

This week I spoke with Jingyun Fan, the Founder and CEO of Shuni.

Jingyun struggled with depression in her early 20s - she was studying biology at MIT, a high-pressure environment that was extremely stressful. She recalls someone telling her that there are three things - work, friends, and sleep - and that she could choose just two of them. It was obvious to her which two she was supposed to pick.

Jingyun’s lack of sleep led to the deterioration of her overall health, and eventually, she knew she had to make a change. Reprioritizing sleep was the first step she took in her wellness journey, along with a lot of self-driven research and working with a therapist.

Jingyun created Shuni with the mission to help other people get to a place of wellbeing much faster than it took her, starting off by addressing insomnia. Below, we talk about the development of Shuni and dig deeper into the complex world of sleep.

A lot of people struggle with sleep, but few decide to start a business out of it. How did your path lead you to the idea for Shuni?

I initially studied biology because I was passionate about improving health and I thought the way to do that was to start with science.

After struggling with depression at MIT, I began prioritizing sleep in an effort to better my mental health. I saw where the world was going and realized I needed more than just a science background to make a difference - I went back to get my master’s degree in math so that I could do proper analytics.

When I graduated, I had this idea that if you could just collect all of the data, you could derive insights that would magically solve all sleep problems. I went to work for a hardware sleep tracking startup called Hello (which eventually shut down in 2017), where we tried exactly that. It was at Hello where I met my Co-Founder Matt Walker, the author of Why We Sleep.

Through my time at Hello, and watching the sleep revolution really take off, my thinking on sleep evolved and I hypothesized that understanding sleep required a more holistic approach than just collecting data. After leaving the company, I spent the next few years as an AI research scientist at Accenture, keeping in touch with Matt on the side as we geeked out on the science of sleep and bounced ideas around.

Ultimately, our ideas solidified into Shuni.

You just mentioned the sleep revolution. Sleep is definitely having its moment. Why do you think sleep is garnering so much interest right now?

It’s definitely related to the overall mental health trend we’re seeing - people are thinking about how they can take better care of themselves.

We spend a third of our lives asleep, obviously it’s something that’s important, but at some point this notion clicked for us collectively.

We’ve had cultural moments that have put more attention on sleep, such as Arianna Huffington’s book as well as Matt’s. And actually, in the past 5-10 years or so, there’s also just been a lot we’ve learned about the science behind sleep. I think most notably with the discovery of the glymphatic system, which tells us that there’s actually a relationship between the clearing out of specific proteins in the brain and sleep. This changed our understanding - sleep was no longer just this thing that we’re unconcious for, but has a crucial biological function. I think that sparked a lot of broad interest.

Once you and Matt figured out the vision for Shuni, how did you decide to actually take the leap and start a company?

It takes a lot, espeically as a minority and female founder, to build up the confidence to decide to actually build a company. A year before I became full-time at Shuni I was still working at Accenture and trying to figure out if I should leave to become an entrepreneur. I had all of these questions around, oh, how do I fundraise? How do I build a product? How do I approach customer acquisition and marketing?

From that journey of questioning I learned you need to be super open, like radically open, and just talk to every single person. Literally everyone. When I was thinking about quitting my job and whether or not to become a founder, I went on a long backpacking trip to mull over what to do. After a hike one day on this trip, I started a conversation with a woman I just met, and she ended up leading me down a path to connecting with Better Ventures, both Jessica Eastling and Rick Moss, who eventually backed us last year.

How has Shuni evolved over time?

I went full-time with Shuni in January 2020, but Shuni has been incubating as an idea since I first got interested in sleep. I’ve iterated through product ideas time and time again, and I’ve been wrong a lot.

I was initially interested in tracking and data, and it took a lot of time digging through data to realize that in general, aggregating sleep data doesn’t teach people what they don’t already know. What people really need is help getting insights that will actually change their behaviors.

The next obvious solution to me was to build an AI sleep therapist - something that took minimal energy, was infinitely scalable and cost effective, and could help change behaviors at scale. So I spent a lot of time building a conversational AI sleep coach. This is where talking with investors helped guide us. I remember speaking to Ilya Sukhar from Matrix Partners, and he was really kind, but he very bluntly told us - “I’ve worked with conversational AI before, and you’re going down the wrong path.” That freaked me out at the time, but I’m very grateful in retrospect because that led to a big pivot for the company.

We looked at the results across AI-driven apps vs. really good human therapists, and saw that they weren’t really comparable at all. That’s why today Shuni focuses on tools and technology that can support therapists - it’s the combination of technology and human ingenuity that acheives the best outcomes.

Could you describe Shuni’s current product and service offerings?

For our clients, we start with a pretty thorough intake to try to learn as much as we can about their sleep - and this isn’t just shallow questions like “what’s the average temperature in your bedroom?” We ask about the history of your sleep, what interventions you’ve tried before, and what your beliefs and perceptions are surrounding sleep. The outcome is a wholly personalized sleep education toolkit that helps people address their specific sleep issues and identify the common misconceptions that exist with sleep science.

We also work a lot on specific mindfulness skills, because we know that sleep issues are highly related to stress and racing thoughts. Our app is built as a companion tool for our clients who are working with us, which includes a sleep diary and sleep scheduling tool. But we’ve also included meditations and sleep lessons that are open to the public, because we understand that therapy and counseling are inaccessible from a cost perspective, and we want to share resources with those who are self-motivated to improve their sleep on their own.

A lot of the technology behind Shuni is something our clients never actually see - it’s built to support our therapists. We’ve been iterating on our product to design a solution that helps our therapists strategize ahead of a client session, figure out the most impactful ways to spend their time, and document their sessions adequately to continue addressing the most important aspects for clients.

Our technology is designed with the goal of ensuring our therapists can deliver services that are high quality, consistent, and transparent.

How do you think about the different customers you serve? Are there specific sleep issues you focus on?

Everyone has distinct needs, but we’re primarily focused on addressing insomnia.

For people with insomnia, it’s very distressing and it can really take over their lives. The way that you look at insomnia is generally two things - the symptoms around sleeping (e.g., trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early), and how much it’s impacting your life (e.g., are you feeling worried about your sleep, is it high priority for you to address).

Insomnia is quite widespread. It’s one of the first physical indicators that something in your mind or body needs addressing.

As we expand from insomnia, we won’t necessarily focus on other sleep disorders, since many of those are more appropriately resolved with a medical intervention such as a CPAP machine. We’ll more likely look to other indications that can be solved with behavioral therapy, such as panic disorder or phobias.

Who do you consider to be the different types of players in the sleep market?

There are a lot of ways to think about the sleep market.

You have companies focused on mattresses and weighted blankets which certainly have their place. Then you’ve got the meditation apps like Calm and Insight Timer that help you get to sleep. In terms of the behavioral health field which is closer to where we play, there’s Sleepio and Pear Therapeutics, who are thinking about how to deliver behavioral health services through different channels, employers and digital therapeutics respectively.

There are many ways to manage your sleep problems, and the one thing I would caution is that you should set your expectations carefully. You don’t want self-care tools to become another way of avoiding figuring out the root causes of your sleep issues.

What has your fundraising journey been like? Are you currently raising?

We raised our Pre-Seed with Better Ventures, who has been a fantastic team that both has a lot of operator experience as well as a beautiful mission of creating a better world. It’s been a joy to work with them.

We’re not fundraising right now and probably won’t be in the near future. The earliest would be toward the end of this year, which would depend a lot on how the business unfolds and if we need the funding or not.

Where do you see Shuni going in the next 5-10 years?

What drives me is getting people access to very high quality mental health care. Solving insomnia is the first step on this mission.

There are a lot of issues in the therapy world, and I wrote a blog post on the financial incentives at play there. My hope is that Shuni will play a role in changing the way things work so that people can get access to the care that they deserve.

Awesome. Final question - are you currently hiring?

We are! We’re actively looking for a full-stack software engineer and a content contributor. Please get in touch if you’re interested.

🩺 Clinical Coverage

Discussion of clinical concepts, studies, or perspectives on mental health and wellbeing.

Similar to how we’re just scratching the surface of understanding the human mind, we’re still in the early days of understanding sleep. It was less than 10 years ago when a team of researchers in the lab of neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard discovered the glymphatic system, which Jingyun referenced above.

Nedergaard’s team identified that when you’re in a specific stage of sleep, there’s a space that opens up in your brain, allowing fluid to flow through and pump out metabolic waste.

In other words, your brain gets a fresh cleaning with each night’s sleep. We’re still learning how this system fully works, and there’s new research that indicates that the timing of your sleep may affect your brain’s waste disposal process, which could have implications on your long-term brain health.

If you want to dig deeper into the glymphatic system, check out the below video:

💰 Recent Investments and IPOs

Rundown of recent investment news in mental health and wellness companies.

📖 Interesting Reads

Sometimes mental health-related. Sometimes just things I find interesting.

  • Chef David Chang is changing how we approach microwaving (Link)

  • The sleep startup landscape is catching investors’ attention (Link)

  • Rejection Emails as a Service (Link)

  • Be more productive - by doing nothing (Link)

  • Debunking the myths we believe about the brain (Link)

  • How to write like Jerry Seinfeld - according to Jerry Seinfeld (Link)

  • Sam Altman explains the future (Link)

  • The World Happiness Report shows long-term resilience (Link)

  • Working from home around the world (Link)

  • Ten powerful life skills (Link)

  • Prince Harry joins mental health startup BetterUp as Chief Impact Officer (Link)

  • Ice baths and breathwork (Link)

  • Epic’s algorithm creates children’s books with characters they know children will love, and it’s working quite well (Link)

  • Legitimacy, and how it comes to be (Link)

  • Therapy speak has penetrated the outside world (Link)

  • Learning a new language as an adult (Link)

🧠 Mindfulness Tip of the Week

Tips to improve your mental health and wellbeing.

It’s only fitting to focus on sleep for this week’s issue. I’m not in a great position to give advice here, but luckily Jingyun shared some of the insights she’s learned over the years. We talked about a couple of the most common misconceptions about sleep:

  • “People think they should just be able to fall asleep when their head hits the pillow. When that doesn’t happen, it’s common to get into an anxiety loop where people assume something is wrong with their ability to fall asleep. In reality, it’s totally normal to take ~30 minutes to fall asleep. Additionally, people’s conscious experience of falling asleep varies widely - if you look at EEGs for certain people as they’re trying to sleep, some might indicate the individual is asleep, but when you ask them, they’ll say they were still conscious. The moment of transitioning from awake to asleep is not always clear. Getting rid of the idea that there’s a ‘normal’ way to fall asleep in and of itself can help drastically.”

  • “These beliefs a lot of times are sort of like whack-a-mole - you’ll read a list of 10 things to do for good sleep hygiene, and think, okay cool, I’m done right? But when you talk to people in the field, you realize that we’re a lot more complicated. When people get insomnia, they get into this weird place of ‘trying’ to sleep, increasing what we call sleep effort, which is very counterproductive to sleep. Sleep is this very natural bodily process that you can’t really force. You can do things to set the conditions to be right and fall into place, but you can’t force sleep itself.”

For more tactical sleep tips, check out this list of strategies from the WSJ.

On Your Mind

I’d love your feedback - feel free to email me at tarockoff@berkeley.edu.

If you’re working on something in mental health and wellness, let’s talk. You can book some time with me here.

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Written by Daniel Tarockoff, an MBA student at UC Berkeley and former healthcare strategy consultant exploring the future of mental health. Born in Michigan. Based in Berkeley, CA.