Big Health Expands Its Digital Therapy For Sleep Disorders To The iPhone

Index Ventures-backed UK health startup Big Health has launched its first app, extending its inaugural web product, Sleepio — a cognitive behavioral therapy program for sleep disorder sufferers — onto the iPhone and iPod Touch. The app integrates with Apple’s HealthKit in iOS 8 so it can import sleep data from fitness tracking devices such as the Jawbone UP, giving users a quick way to flesh out their sleep profile within the app. Update: The Sleepio app will be on the App Store later today, once iOS 8 has rolled out. Stay tuned.

Update 2: The app’s launch was disrupted by a bug in Apple’s HealthKit developer tool which caused Cupertino to lock down HealthKit and remove apps with HealthKit integration from its store entirely. Apple has said it’s working on fixing the bug by the end of this month. Until then there’s no active HealthKit integration. So the version of Sleepio currently on the App Store has had HealthKit integration removed temporarily, until Apple fixes the problem.

Big Health itself is on a mission to invent a new category of healthcare called “digital medicine” — offering an alternative to pharmaceutical interventions by scaling CBT programs to large numbers of people via the medium of digital technology. The premise being that not everyone can get face-to-face access to a flesh and blood therapist, even when that might be preferable to taking drugs. But an automated digital CBT can be inexpensively scaled to anyone with Internet access.

The startup has conducted what it says is a “world first” placebo-controlled randomized trial of the effectiveness of Sleepio — in a bid to set the product in a rigorous, medically valid category of its own, i.e. rather than have it rubbing shoulders with generic lifestyle advice apps and services. Proving the effectiveness of its “digital medicine” will therefore be key to scaling this business as big as its sizable ambitions.

The startup is backed by some $3.8 million in funding, from investors including Index, Forward Partners and Esther Dyson. It’s spent some of that money on today’s mobilizing of its virtual therapist, The Prof, so that it can make its digital CBT product portable. That’s an obvious boon, given that insomniacs are more likely to be able to reach for their phone when they’re unable to sleep in the middle of the night than have a laptop or desktop handy.

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The Sleepio app offers users immediate help when they’re trying to sleep — via a ‘Help me now’ button, that will generate advice from The Prof contextualized to the user’s location and time of day, as well as personalized based on their sleep data. It also acts as a repository for that sleep data. Users can either input the data themselves (into the app or the Sleepio website), or import sleep data from third party tracking devices. The app then generates various visualizations of the data, including a sleep efficiency score, based on time spent in bed vs time spent asleep in bed.

“You can now do the full evidence-based CBT program from your iPhone, and the help you get is now tailored based on data from HealthKit, as well as Jawbone UP,” Big Health CEO Peter Hames tells TechCrunch. “Given that we’re likely to see a bunch of apps and devices writing sleep data into HealthKit then we act as the missing link — actually making that data useful.”

The only feature the app lacks vs the Sleepio web product is the social network element. Online, Sleepio offers a forum type environment that links insomniacs with fellow sleep disorder sufferers so they can get some (human) advice and support, as a supplement to The Prof’s digital ministrations.

“For now, the community is web only – but this is better suited to long form communication in any case,” adds Hames.

The Sleepio App will be a free download on the App Store. Users get seven days free access to trial the full product, after which they will need to pay a subscription to access the full CBT program — either $4.99 per month to get access to instant sleep tips, or $149 for a personalized, 12-week ‘Long Term Sleep Improvement’ program  — or they can carry on using the app’s Sleep Diary and Your Schedule features for free.