Waterloo alum and co-founder of Roga , Dr. Alison Smith (PhD ’09), was in her first year as a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the University of Waterloo when she contracted a chronic illness called Lyme disease. Smith struggled during her program due to her declining health as the bacterial infection reached her central nervous system. She was subsequently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
"When I finally got diagnosed with Lyme disease and I was going through treatment, the Lyme symptoms were starting to disappear - I was then left with an anxiety disorder," Smith says. "I was on medication and doing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but both of those things come with some issues."
Ami Lebendiker, co-founder and CEO of Roga, had been a product manager at Google for 10 years working under intense pressure. After a few years of taking prescribed medication and seeing a therapist to help with his anxiety disorder, Lebendiker was still feeling he was not getting any better and quit his job to start looking for alternative solutions for his anxiety.
"I realized there was a whole world of hardware and brain stimulation devices for mental health, and that is how I got introduced to everything about neuroscience," Lebendiker says. Smith met Lebendiker at a neuroscience convention in Silicon Valley They both realized they shared a common mission: to create an affordable and convenient alternative to medication and therapy to help relieve daily stress and anxiety.
Creating a healthcare platform from personal experience"It was clear from the beginning that we had to focus on the people that struggled the most with stress and burnout, and that is generation Z and millennials," Lebendiker says. "Those are the students and people who are in the first year of school or working full-time, and they do not have a lot of tools, or they do not have a lot of people in their network that they can trust to talk about this."
Smith and Lebendiker created Roga, a health-care platform that combines a wearable wellness device, which produces pulsed electrical stimulation when plugged into your phone, and on-demand, video-based content via the Roga app. The app provides access to group coaching and audio/video sessions narrated by various mental health experts and practitioners.
"The hardware design had to be concealable because people have to put the device on, and we did not want others to notice you are wearing a brain stimulator," Smith says. "It had to be very easy to use, as our rule was: it had to be put on within five seconds because that is how much it takes for somebody to get into a triggered panic attack."
Before launching the Roga device and app in October 2022, Lebendiker was already sharing the device with friends. The combination of the Roga device and app has been proven to effectively reduce daily feelings of stress, anxiety and burnout. Lebendiker’s mental health and lifestyle started improving after incorporating Roga as a consistent 10-minute meditation routine to start his day. Smith also uses the Roga device, including a 30-minute session via the app during her winding down routine at the end of the night.
Joining VelocitySmith was interested in joining Velocity because of the resources and support the community provides for startup companies in their early stage.
"I would say that Velocity is unique where it is the first incubator that I have ever witnessed that has a dedicated lab space and engineering space for research and development," Smith says. "When you are an early-stage startup, you want to be with the strongest networks possible, and Velocity is a really special place."
"Our primary mentor, Moazam Khan, built a company that is currently successful in the medical device industry. He understood that we were feeling a lot of pressure around getting through our regulatory responsibilities. His support helped us understand how to get through that process and into the market."
Smith and Lebendiker acknowledge Velocity’s supportive community as a huge stress reliever since joining. The co-founders are pursuing a medical device clearance to make Roga a certified medical device. Smith and Lebendiker hope to improve the Roga device to allow users to track their biometric data over a period of time in the future.
"We started this company to democratize the technology by making it discreet and affordable for everyone," Lebendiker says. "The same way that stress and burnout are really contagious - healing and opening up is also very contagious. We want to start a new viral trend of people actually talking about their problems, opening up and really improving their quality of life. Our mission for Roga is to be a part of the healing process."
Roga has joined Velocity as part of the Southwestern Ontario Health Innovation Partnership (SOHIP), a program funded by a $10-million investment by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).
SOHIP is opening pathways to support the strong pipeline of health tech companies that is emerging in southwestern Ontario by connecting them with services, support for health tech product development and access to specialized research labs and clinical trial spaces as part of Velocity’s offerings, Medical Innovation Xchange (MIX) and Western University’s medical programs and innovation partners.
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