This Sheffield entrepreneur's sleep aid could end insomnia nightmare

This man might be just about to change your world.

By Rob Hollingworth
Wednesday, 16th June 2021, 10:05 am

Sounds like an exaggeration? Not if you’re an insomniac and lack of sleep is ruining your life.

This was Sheffield entrepreneur Richard Mills who decided he wouldn’t put up with his nightmare anymore and did something about it.

Having been involved with a restaurant, a champagne bar and a sports injury product, Richard got more ambitious.

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Richard Mills co-founder and CEO of SleepCogni. Picture Scott Merrylees

In 2015, he formed a company with the aim of making a product which would tackle insomnia without drugs.

So SleepCogni was born and six years later it is on the verge of something revolutionary.

Put simply, SleepCogni is a wearable ring which vibrates when it picks up stress and anxiety signals.

The vibration distracts you from the anxiety and helps you wind down.

Richard Mills co-founder and CEO of SleepCogni. Picture Scott Merrylees

Following a successful clinical trial at Sheffield Hallam University, preliminary analysis has shown that SleepCogni reduces insomnia in just seven days.

The company has taken a major step towards capturing a share of the global $80bn sleep aid market after securing US regulatory registration.

Richard, aged 39, is co-founder and CEO of SleepCogni, which is aiming to target the US market with his data-supported device which has now been registered for medical use by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

A game changing result after a long journey.

Richard Mills co-founder and CEO of SleepCogni. Picture Scott Merrylees

“We’ve been devising this for the last six years - in the medical device world, you have got to get everything regulated and validated,” says Richard

“Ours is a wearable device that you put on your finger. It uses the behaviour senses to understand where you are in your journey to fall asleep.”

So your heartbeat or your pulse could be met with a response from the device which is a vibration based on how alert you are. It starts off busy and as you wind down, become less anxious, the feedback reduces.

This is haptic feedback, the use of touch to communicate with users, in this case how to distract someone from the things they worry about - whether that’s their children, job or the shopping.

Richard Mills co-founder and CEO of SleepCogni. Picture Scott Merrylees

“The feedback snaps you out of a place where you are anxious into a way of winding down,” says Richard.

“You follow the cues to click on a button on a ring. While you do that, you can’t think about other distractions like shopping. It is a sustained attention task.”

In the early days, Richard was helped with funding and expertise from Heaven 17s Martyn Ware.

“He understands soundscapes, vibration and it was important to get that,”

Richard co-founded SleepCogni alongside Dutch chronobiologist and sleep expert, Dr Maan van de Werken. The ring has now secured 11 patents including ones for its wind down technology, Active-Biofeedback, which uses haptic feedback.

Since it was founded in 2015, SleepCogni has raised almost £1.8m to support technology development, including investment from venture capitalists Mercia and other private sources, and has secured three research and development grants through the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

Richard Mills co-founder and CEO of SleepCogni. Picture Scott Merrylees

The ring was built and designed with Hallam University and then given to 80 testers who didn’t know what they were getting. The preliminary data was positive.

“It was a huge relief. That is what we worked for. We sent the devices off, didn’t know what we would get and it was all down to the data.”

Half of the testers wore the ring, half got a placebo. “When the data came back the results were chalk and cheese.”

The analysis showed that SleepCogni reduced insomnia – as measured by the Insomnia Severity Index - in just seven days.

It was registered for medical use by the FDA which opens up immediate access to an estimated 70m sleep sufferers living in the US.

“FDA registration is a major development for the company, giving us access into the American market where, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three people suffer with insomnia at some point in their lives,” says Richard.

“This coincides with an agreement to roll out our device in US sleep clinics following the successful completion of its final testing.”

Leading the SleepCogni clinical trials were Dr Antonia Ypsilanti, Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Dr Lambros Lazuras, Associate Professor in Social Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University.

Dr Ypsilanti said: “The SleepCogni trials produced extraordinary results. It’s ground-breaking to see such a drastic improvement on insomnia severity, and therefore unsurprising that the participants found the device more effective than other sleep improvement approaches they’d used in the past.”

There are some big hitters on-board. The company’s chairman is Richard di Benedetto, President of Aetna International health insurance, and a leading figure in the global healthcare sector.

And all this was made possible in Sheffield, thanks to Hallam’s psychology department on Collegiate Crescent and work with the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre in the Olympic Legacy Park.

“It’s brilliant for the region to have the latest research facilities and great people running them” says Richard.

“They can give support and get businesses off the ground. You have got to get a buy-in from investors and access to experts and facilities.

“That wasn’t here a few years ago, we weren’t getting much support, but we are now. I want to see the entrepreneurial spirit funded to benefit local and regional businesses.”

But you have to be patient. “High end technology takes years. It is all about getting to different inflection points so you can move on to the next stage. Now people are taking us seriously and we can scale up. Regulatory approval opens a huge market.

“I’m a proud Sheffielder and I didn’t want to do this in Silicon Valley or London, I wanted it to be here. The AWRC and both universities meant the resources were here.”

Owls fan Richard is one of three Mills children who grew up in Hillsborough where his mum and dad still live. He’s also stayed in S6. “I couldn’t move away from the hallowed turf.”

He left school with no thought of university. “I had that entrepreneurial spirit, I wanted to do my own thing.”

That included setting up the Walnut Club, a restaurant in Hathersage and champagne bar in Ecclesall Road. He also ventured into sport with Swellaway, an electronic device to treat sports injuries.

It is a fan which clips around the affected body part to cool, heat and compress muscles, doing away with the need for ice or water treatment

Footballer Wayne Rooney was lead investor in the company behind the device. “He’s a really nice guy, came to meetings and was an active investor.”

Richard left in 2015 but still has shares and will tap up Rooney for funding for the next stage of SleepCogni, which is rolling it out to sleep clinics.

“I’m really excited about SleepCogni. Getting that data a few weeks ago was game-changing. For it to show the device helped people fall asleep and sleep better, to reduce insomnia in seven days was phenomenal, when you consider this is without drugs or tablets. It could save people's lives.

“If you don’t sleep well, you don’t perform well. It is linked to mental health but is often overlooked.

“During the pandemic and the tough times of the last 12 months people having difficulty falling asleep has increased by 70%.

“This product is a new way for people to sleep, to manage that rather than do it with drugs.

“Now we are raising £1million to roll it out to four sleep clinics, two in America and two here. That is the work for the next six months.”

He’s already a third of the way there and the dream is to get the product in some of the 4,000 sleep clinics in the US within 18 months.

Dad-of-one Richard knew things were looking good when his daughter Ella, six, came to stay. “I had left the ring on the side and she picked it up. Within five minutes she was asleep! It normally takes me an hour.

“She has used it since and fallen asleep quickly. When people use this, they start to understand how stress and anxiety affects them.”

And this month, SleepCogni was shortlisted for the Good Health and Well-Being Award.

Richard said: “To be shortlisted and recognized by the CogX judges, along with Babylon health, who are the biggest health tech company to come out of the UK in the past decade in my opinion, is an amazing acknowledgment of how far SleepCogni has come.

“Where else could you share a platform with the amazing Eric Topol, who is the pioneer of personalised medicine to global superstars like Robert Downey Jnr, Matthew McConaughey and Nile Rodgers.”

It sounds like Richard could become a very rich man, but he has other goals. “My aim is to change the world and do something cool.

“I want the investors who backed me to become rich to thank them for their faith.

“If I can help people the GPs can’t help, apart from with tablets, having an alternative would be game changing.”

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Richard Mills (left) co-founder and CEO of SleepCogni with Jason Brannan Deputy Director AWRC. Picture Scott Merrylees