Behind Valkee: The Profitable Startup That Shines Lights Into Your Ears To Cure The Winter Blues

Finland has produced Angry Birds and red-hot gaming company Supercell, but there’s another profitable startup that’s got a far unlikelier background and product.

One of the more outlandish-sounding startups I met in Helsinki last week was Valkee, a company that makes a device that shines lights onto your brain cells through your ear canals.

Yes, it does sound pretty strange, but the device exists to treat seasonal affective disorder, or that temporary depression that some people get during winter. Plus, Valkee has attracted backing from angel investors including well-known angel Esther Dyson, Playfish co-founder and EA executive vice president Kristian Segestrale and Jaiku and Ditto co-founder Jyri Engeström.

The company has an unusual backstory that marries hard science with consumer hardware. Co-founder Juuso Nissila had been researching the circadian rhythms of birds and found that there were light-sensitive proteins on the surface of the brain that could help regulate their sleep schedules. He wondered if the same photo-sensitivity could be found in human brains.

Screen Shot 2012-12-03 at 4.19.09 PMAt the same time, a friend and Nokia researcher Antti Auino was putting lights up all around his home. He was trying to fight off Seasonal Affective Disorder, or the “Winter Blues” when people get depressed during winter months with the lower amounts of light.

“I told him you don’t need to your light your house. You need to light your brain,” Nissila said. The ear canal was the most natural and obvious way to shine light onto the surface of the brain. Within weeks, they had a prototype.

Called The Valkee, the device looks like an MP3 player with a set of fancy headphones attached to it. The earbuds actually have a pair of lights attached to them that run for 12-minute sessions at a time. The idea is that by shining light into sensitive areas of the brain, it will stimulate a special OPN3 protein in parts of the brain that help regulate serotonin, melatonin and dopamine production.

They’re initially marketing it to people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but they’re planning to expand their consumer base to people who need to fight off jet lag.

“If I stop using it for one week, I start eating more and it becomes very difficult to wake up in the morning,” said Timo Ahopelto, who was CEO of the company before leaving to join early-stage Finnish VC fund Lifeline Ventures, which also holds a stake in Valkee. I’ve used it, and I can’t tell if there is any effect yet beyond making my ears feel warm in the morning. But I’m also Californian, so I’m not even really sure I suffer from seasonal affective disorder because we don’t really have seasons.

They’ve done some initial clinical trials. A study published earlier this year showed that about 92 percent of patients (from a sample size of about a dozen) showed full remission on the Beck Depression Inventory questionnaire and 77 percent saw full remission on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression. Another controlled study showed that athletes who received bright light therapy for three weeks were able to cut their motor reaction times by about one-fifth. A third randomized controlled study with about 90 people showed that Valkee-treated patients were able to cut their scores on the SIGH-SAD, a scale that measures severity of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

All of these studies are fairly small and it’s still early, but Valkee is following up with more double-blind studies where neither the patients nor doctors running the studies will know whether Valkee headsets or placebos are being used.

“We were working with severely depressed people. We live quite north in Oulo. it’s only 170 kilometers to the Arctic Circle, so the darkness is very, very, very abundant,” Nissila said.

Ahopelto says that the company tries to be very open with potential customers. They don’t edit comments on the Facebook Page, for example, if anyone has anything critical to say.

“We don’t moderate negative comments out. There are some people who say they spent 190 euros on it and it didn’t work or that it was the worst purchase in their life,” he said. “Then there are others who say that it’s helped save their lives and winters.” You can see a recent sample of reviews here.

The comments range from critics who call it “snakeoil…” to actual users who say things like:

My depression had become so severe that even during the summer it lingered this year. Not only has my suicidal thinking ceased, my ability to stay awake after dark, and even though I still have restless sleep, I wake up with a desire to get out of bed, and my pain has decreased. I haven’t had a prescription ibuprophen in 2 weeks now. I lived in constant pain in my back and everywhere. It may be the fact that I am better able to take my magnesium and vit D now that I have my Valkee, either way I am alot more functional and alot less miserable!”

Ahopelto adds that the company has a return rate of less than 1 percent, including people who order the Valkee on the web and return it within 14 days.

The first year, the company sold about 5,000 units. In the second, they sold 20,000 and they expect to sell perhaps around 50,000 units of the current edition, which has better casing. Like many other hardware startups, Valkee has benefited from the rise of Facebook, which has given the company a cheap way to find customers without having extensive retail or distribution partnerships.

While a device that shines lights into your ears sounds like it might be a niche product, Ahopelto thinks the potential market size is large.

“Maybe a quarter of people in New York suffer from Winter Blues and even in Southern Italy, you’ll still find about 5 percent suffering from seasonal affective disorder,” Ahopelto said.

The company is in the process of raising a Series A venture round and they plan to launch in the U.S. next year if they get clearance. Valkee has Class II(a) clearance in the European Union.

Here’s a Reuters video on the Valkee: