Olivia Walch wasn’t planning to start a company when she developed Entrain, an app that helps travelers shift their circadian rhythms to reduce jet lag in a new time zone. But when Entrain attracted 50,000 downloads in a single week, Walch realized she had something powerful on her hands. Users began contacting her with requests to develop special versions of the app tailored for groups ranging from toddlers to shift workers. “It was kind of like being slapped in the face with the market opportunity,” she says.
Although Walch has since begun the process of starting a company, Arcascope, the project started small during her Ph.D. studies in mathematics at the university, where her research was focused on using mathematical equations to predict the body’s circadian rhythms. She translated the research of her advisor, Danny Forger, and his student Kirill Serkh, into the Entrain app, which requires users to input what times of day they’re usually exposed to light and darkness, as well as what time zone they’re attempting to shift to. The app then recommends a new schedule of light and darkness exposure to get the user on his or her new schedule as quickly as possible. “Dark” periods don’t necessarily mean the user needs to be sleeping, or even literally in the dark. Users may instead wear red-tinted sunglasses to block blue light, which most affects circadian rhythms.
Since that first week of 50,000 downloads, Walch says she’s received positive feedback from users, including one who claimed to have gotten a new job thanks to the app. But Entrain is only the beginning of the applications Walch is now envisioning for circadian scheduling technology.
People commonly associate circadian rhythms with sleep, but Walch notes that numerous other bodily functions ranging from strength to immune function are linked to the circadian clock. She’ll be exploring the circadian rhythms of athletic performance next, thanks to a $200,000 grant she received this spring from the U-M Exercise and Sport Science Initiative (ESSI). Walch describes athletics as “one of the lowest-hanging fruits” for applications of her technology. “Your circadian clock determines when you’re going to be best at giving your all in a sports setting,” she says.
Walch has even more applications for her technology in mind beyond that project. As the overall market for sleep technology is expected to reach $80B by 2020, she says, there are not shortage of opportunities. Among other things, Walch is currently applying for funding to study the impact of circadian rhythms on the effectiveness of medical interventions. She’s also mulling applications for shift workers, who she describes as “chronically jet-lagged.” We don’t generally think of light as a drug, but Walch says we should. “It absolutely has a chemical effect on your body, and we can now track and predict that effect through math,” she says.
Walch describes her ESSI grant as a “lifeline” as she continues to develop Arcascope into a full-fledged company and hire staff in addition to herself for the first time. She’s connected with more grant funding prospects and numerous other opportunities through Kate Remus, her Mentor-in-Residence at the U-M Tech Transfer’s Venture Center. Tech Transfer also partially funded Walch’s postdoctoral research on her technology after she graduated in September. “I’m able to continue this work and really further it without having to give up equity to some outside party,” she says. “That’s been really amazing.”
Though she may not have set out with entrepreneurial intent, Walch says U-M’s culture has helped drive the Entrain project from the start. She says she knows fellow students in U-M’s math department who have applied their research to developing apps as well. “It’s something you might expect more from an engineering department than a math department, which is usually more focused on the theory-side,” she says. “I think that’s really cool and it’s only going to increase more.”
Walch, also notes that, because of Entrain, and these other apps being developed, the science of circadian biology is being advanced. “We’re right now collecting data from those people who opt to submit it,” Walch says, “and it has real potential to expand our knowledge of the field.” Individuals interested in joining this effort, can sign up online at either entrain.org or arcascope.com