Keeping Tabs w/ R/Labs — Apollo Neuroscience: “Banding” Together Against Stress
Apollo Neuroscience is a wellness technology brand that regulates stress through the use of vibrations from a wearable worn on the wrist or ankle. Their mission is to empower people to take control of their health by taking control of their stress first.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Fantauzzi, Co-Founder of Apollo Neuroscience. Not only did I learn the history of Apollo and how she worked together with Dr. David Rabin, MD, PhD (her fiancé at the time, now husband), but Fantauzzi also brought me on a journey of understanding how stress works and what Apollo does to help regulate it.
I’ll be honest, prior to speaking with Fantauzzi, I didn’t know much about stress — just that it REALLY sucks and can mess with every aspect of your life. She explained that “things like, getting more sleep, focusing on tasks, and having more energy, are all made much more difficult by chronic stress.” And to top things off, stress is incredibly hard to deal with. Sure, there’s meditation, breathing exercises, even regular exercise, but making time for those can prove to be quite difficult and can lead to being stressed about being stressed — not to mention these stress relief techniques are much more difficult when we’re already stressed.
It all started in the University of Pittsburgh lab. Dr. Rabin was studying chronic stress on the cellular and molecular level, as well as on a personal level for almost 15 years; he worked with patients suffering with anything from PTSD, to insomnia, to substance abuse. Through his research and reading he saw that traditional practices like meditation, breathwork, and biofeedback were helpful in sessions, but it was very challenging for patients to engage in those practices on their own outside of sessions with him. Fantauzzi explained that this occurs because when you are stressed (meaning you are experiencing excess sympathetic, or fight-or-flight activity in the nervous system), the harder it becomes to change behaviors, even when you know how beneficial a change may be.
An example Fantauzzi provided is, “if you’re driving down the street and you’ve had a hard day and someone cuts you off, you’re way more likely to react than if you just came from a yoga class — you’re already primed to be in stress response because your body learns a pattern. If you continually are consistently stressed, your body remembers being stressed and that becomes the familiar path for your body’s response. You end up seeking a short term solution, more of a distraction or avoidance, but don’t actually deal with stress as the root.”
The last thing Dr. Rabin wanted was to develop a method that ultimately led to more stress: it was time for a more active solution, and thus the foundation for Apollo Neuro was built. He looked at 50+ years of literature and conducted various experiments. Dr. Rabin was on a hunt for a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical way to interrupt and help the body be more resilient to stress that could be used actually in the moment someone needed it. This was very different from everything else on the market, as most solutions are generally things you do before or after you are stressed, but not during.
Dr. Rabin decided to look at touch, which Fantauzzi explained is the sense we respond to the fastest and the sense that indicates safety the quickest.
“Think of a baby: if you pick it up and rock it and pat it, it stops crying. This is because a touch sends a signal to your brain that says ‘you’re safe.’ Your body then starts to regulate itself — heart rate comes down, breathing evens out, you stop sweating.”
As Dr. Rabin conducted his research at the University of Pittsburgh, its tech accelerator arm reached out to ask if he was interested in participating in innovation competitions. He asked Fantauzzi to join him at these meetings. Given her background in technology transfer (getting novel projects out of the lab faster) and also previously developing a $20M incubator fund at the Energy Research and Development Authority in NY for early tech acceleration, this task was right up her alley. She ended up raising $0.5M of non-dilutive grant funding for Dr. Rabin to do all the initial clinical trials, and joined the team as an advisor.
Through Dr. Rabin’s extensive trials, (double-blind, randomized, single-controlled variable) that involved participants taking a test, he was able to show that when compared against dummy vibrations or no vibrations at all, the Apollo significantly increased heart rate variability (balancing of nervous system). Additionally, people felt less stressed (biomarkers of stress went down) and performance on the test went up by 25%, indicating improved cognitive performance.
Fantauzzi explained that Apollo works by inducing a sort of “flow” state, helping someone be calm so they have more control over their cognition as, “when you’re under stress, your cognitive performance goes down because you’re simultaneously managing your own stress response while trying to do the task at hand.” With Apollo, people had more energy and ability to perform the task and ended up performing better, which was pretty mind blowing for Fantauzzi. She decided to quit everything else she was doing to focus on Apollo.
The team continued to conduct a number of trials, including ones relating to meditative states: they found Apollo is able to help non-meditators match the brainwaves of meditators within 12 minutes, and also helped with athletic recovery. Those with PTSD were seeing reduction in stress and the ability to reduce the number of opioids they were taking. They also tested the Apollo with 2000 people in the “real world” and Fantauzzi said those people displayed, “improved focus, improved ability to sleep, better stress management, and better recovery over time.” The longer people used Apollo, the more sensitive they became to it and the better it worked. However it is not addictive by any means: as an addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Rabin made sure to avoid the potential for dependency.
After their first venture raise, Apollo hired its team and launched the wristband in January 2020 — it was a rousing success despite COVID-19, as they have about 20,000 users at this point. Aside from the tech itself, Fantauzzi attributes the success of Apollo to the interdisciplinary backgrounds of the team as well as their non-siloed roles.
Fantauzzi is super excited for the future of Apollo Neuroscience, as there’s “a lot more to Apollo than just the device.” Community engagement, and particularly listening to customer feedback and requests is super important to them. From developing the product (lab testing), to bringing it to the real world, to making sure it has the same consistency as it did in the lab, everything that goes into the product is based on consumer feedback. The Apollo team always asks customers, “what would be meaningful to you? How can this product be useful to you?” The Apollo team also focuses on providing content as well as context on how best to use their device (and regulate stress in general) as they see this to be the area where a lot of wearable devices fall short — in a sea of information, they want to narrow down what is relevant and really make people understand how or why something works to empower customers to be an active member in their health journey.
Actually, one of the biggest challenges with Apollo was explaining how the tech works. Fantauzzi described how because it’s a fairly elegant and simple solution, “people are skeptical. In this era there is a lot of misinformation, a lot of people trying to sell you things, and it’s hard to track down what’s true and what’s not true.” But with the extensive clinical trials as well as user testimonials, this is becoming less of a challenge. Not to mention, 2020 was a huge paradigm shift towards understanding chronic stress:
“Before you had to explain to someone why chronic stress was a problem. Previously people would say, ‘I eat stress for breakfast,’ when in fact stress was eating THEM for breakfast, but they may not have realized it. 2020 made it really clear for everyone what chronic stress is because we’ve all been on this marathon for the last 9+ months.”
Republic Labs is really excited about Apollo Neuroscience’s successful year, as well as their mission of improving health, so we are eager to see what great things they do next.
This quote from Fantauzzi pretty much summarizes why everyone is excited about Apollo:
“If I can help people manage their stress better, if I can help people feel better, and empower them to take control of their health and get the sleep that they need, then they can contribute in their own lives; if everyone’s feeling better, the world is a helluva lot of a better place.”
Republic Labs is the advisor to clients which have invested in Apollo Neuroscience, nothing herein should be construed as investment advice.
By Elizabeth Olshanetsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) for Republic Labs.