Nora Levinson is a mechanical engineer who lived and worked in China for about five years helping consumer brands including Jawbone, Skullcandy, and Incase design and manufacture their products. It was stressful. Really stressful. She was almost always working.
And so when Levinson watched the first generation of wearable technology come into the marketplace, all largely designed to count steps and track various fitness metrics, she didn't see what she was looking for. She wanted a product that would help her deal with her elevated levels of work-induced anxiety.
Moderating "stress was definitely a very personal need for me," says Levinson, in a conversation with CNBC. "Living and working in China before I moved back to the states, it was a 24-7, always on at the factory, and that was something that I struggled a lot with."
She and her then colleague and now co-founder, David Watkins, decided to build the wearable they wanted.
Called the Sona, the stylish bracelet has an accurate heart-rate monitor built in. The accompanying iPhone app takes users through paced breathing and meditation exercises, and measures their ability to calm their heart-rates and stress levels in real time. It's designed to help keep the type-A, productivity-obsessed mind from wandering.
Sitting in a quiet space and trying to find zen on command can be a real challenge for modern workers.
"All of a sudden, your to-do list comes up, you start thinking about all the emails you have to answer," says Levinson. "This is a very focused technique to learn and had very quantifiable feedback in the moment as well as, over time, to show progress."
Levinson has been able to significantly improve her own ability to focus by using the bracelet and learning how to use her breath to control her heart rate. When she first starting wearing the Sona bracelet, she could only focus at about a level "20," as measured by the app. Now she can pretty consistently get up to a level of focus measured at "70 or 80."
Learning to control stress through breathing has made it easier for Levinson to make decisions efficiently.
"[If] I am in a stressful meeting or there are a lot of opinions, I can navigate that in a way that is very calm and rational. It is easier to concentrate as well without getting distracted or anxiety about other things I need to work on," says Levinson. "I can definitely count myself as someone who is a poster child for someone who has been rehabilitated."
Levinson and Watkins's first company together, ADOPTED, manufactures luxury cases and accessories. In 2014, they founded Caeden, the New York City-based company that manufactures the Sona bracelet. Their first product on the market was a stylish set of headphones called the Linea.
When the pair decided to start thinking about a wearable device that would help them manage stress, Levinson started reading research papers voraciously. One pair of names kept coming up over and over again: a husband and wife team Dr. Evgeny Vaschillo and Dr. Bronya Vaschillo.
Levinson reached out to the Vaschillos who, it turned out, were working at Rutgers University, very close to New York City. They met and started what would turn out to be the collaborative partnership to launch Sona. Dr. Evgeny Vaschillo was a leader within the Saint Petersburg Board of Public Health through the 1960s and 1970s and Dr. Bronya Vaschillo is a physician.
Dr. Evgeny Vaschillo spent decades researching heart rate variability, which is the time in between the beats of your heart. The pace of your breath in and out directs the speed of your heartbeat, so by controlling your breath, you can control the speed of your heart and therefore affect your body's response to stress.
Vaschillo researched the science of heart-rate variability on behalf of Russia as a way to monitor the stress levels of cosmonauts, since their EKG reports were sent down from space.
The heart-rate variability research developed for the cosmonauts was eventually used in military applications by fighter pilots and submarine pilots. It was also eventually used as a stress reduction and recovery mechanism by the Russian Olympics team.
To be sure, there is no way to avoid stress. Whether you are under a tight deadline at work or running away from a predator, the body will get stressed. That's normal. The problem, explains Levinson, is in remaining in a state of high stress for prolonged periods of time. That will do damage to your body on a physical level.
Levinson is aware that she is getting into a crowded space and coming up against some consumer fatigue. Who wants another wearable device that only sort of works and will eventually end up in a junk drawer when it gets dusty? Do anyone really need another app on their phone that gives more data that they don't know what to do with?
But to hear her tell it, for the wearables industry, 2016 is still early days. And while the novelty factor of getting a piece of wearable tech may have faded, there is still excitement for wearables that make a real difference in a user's quality of life.
And perhaps she is right. The Sona bracelet has only been available for purchase online since it launched in August and currently, it's out of stock. The bracelet normally retails for $199 but customers who order online can sign up for a pre-order for $179. For the holiday shopping season, Sona will be available on shelves at Urban Outfitters by mid to late November. The popular retailer will feature a silicon-only version that will run for $150.
"Going forward, I think there is a huge opportunity for new use cases for wearables," says Levinson. "I truly believe that stress and overall wellness is a major issue, an issue that a lot of people care about and want to find some help with and guidance for. So, it's less about, 'This is the hot new wearable!' … It is more about, 'This is a tool that can help you with stress.'"