Zennea co-founder Nell Du tests their technology on co-CEO Rachel Chase. (Submitted photo)

Zennea co-founder Nell Du tests their technology on co-CEO Rachel Chase. (Submitted photo)

Surrey SFU students win $35K for sleep apnea tech

Big win for ‘sleep wearable’ machine that helps reduce snoring

A startup company created by SFU students has won big for its “sleep wearable” alternative to improve sleep apnea.

Zennea Technologies — created by four students including three from Surrey — won the best overall prize valued at $35,000 in the annual Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize competition that awards entrepreneurialism.

Their win includes $10,000 in cash and $25,000 in in-kind prizes. It comes after the team beat out 44 other competitors in a “Dragon’s Den-style” pitch of their company.

The students have created what they call “sleep wearables,” which is a smaller, portable battery-operated device that helps reduce snoring.

They hope it will become an alternative to large CPAP machines for those who have sleep apnea.

They also say the “discreet” device tracks the quality of sleep and helps to improve health.

homelessphoto

Zennea Technologies is the big winner of the annual Coast Capital Venture Prize at SFU. From left: Janice OBriain, Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection associate director; students Ryan Threlfall and Rachel Chase, co-CEOS; and Wayne Berg, chief commercial officer for Coast Capital Savings. (Submitted photo)

Co-CEO Rachel Chase, who grew up in South Surrey, explained that with sleep apnea, a person’s airway closes more than 30 per cent, restricting oxygen.

“It can collapse partially or completely block your airway from sleeping. You can go from snoring quite loudly to not breathing at all,” she elaborated.

CPAP machines (continuous positive airway pressure devices), which are used by many with sleep apnea, are very “Darth Vader-esque,” Chase chuckled. Zennea’s machine aims to be less invasive and more widely available, as a wellness product.

“The biggest complaint from people about CPAPs or micro-CPAPs is you have something foreign in your mouth or up your nose,” Chase said. “Our product proactively opens your airway so you don’t have anything that’s obstructive or inserted.”

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Chase noted that in North American, roughly 29 million people have sleep apnea.

“The golden standard for treating sleep apnea is a CPAP, but it only has a global compliance rate of 50 per cent,” she explained. “What people do not necessarily know, is that chronic snoring can have similar long-term effects to sleep apnea if there is no intervention.”

The $10,000 they’ve won will go into buying a portable ultrasound machine they will use to further test their technology, said Chase, and the in-kind prizes will help them in achieving a patent as well as with accounting.

“It will allow us to grow the company at a faster rate, and get to market so we can actually help people,” Chase added. “If you’re a chronic snorer and you wake up feeling tired everyday, our device is definitely going to make you feel improved and more rested in the morning.

“You could go get a sleep study done but in Canada, you’re looking at an average of 18 months to get that sleep study. But our product will be available off the shelf. It will be available on our website, on Amazon and we’re looking into a few retail locations.”

They hope to fully launch in early 2019.

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Co-CEO of Zennea Technologies Ryan Threlfall, who was born and raised in North Surrey, said there’s “a fairly interesting and mildly concering stat where only about 10 per cent of sleep apnea sufferers are diagnosed.

Threlfall said the team is grateful for SFU’s support, particularly the Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection program that since 2008 has provided support for university ventures from initial idea to business validation. It offers an early-stage business incubator, mentorship, co-op terms, competitions, networking, speaker events, workshops, seminars, and other business resources.

“We value the mentorship, friendship and support we’ve received as a part of Venture Connection,” Threlfall elaborated. “It’s an amazing community that deserves much of the credit for our victory.”

“It’s the only paid co-op in Canada for entrepreneurs to make money while working on their business,” added Chase. “We’re in academic purgatory. We’re not graduated but we’re no longer taking classes. We’re just using SFU’s amazing services and we’ve been on co-op for the last eight months, being paid a salary and working on the venture full-time.”

Bruce Schouten, interim President of Coast Capital Savings, said the partnership with SFU aligns with the company’s “promise to help build a richer future for youth” and that “some of the world’s most important breakthroughs have come from youth, right here in Canada…. This year’s participants impressed us with their passion and ingenuity.”



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