By Tanvi Bajaj
College students who have stayed in double or triple rooms all agree that one of the biggest, most unavoidable challenges of having a roommate is waking up to the sound of their alarm.
Yohann Samarasinghe is no exception. As a heavy sleeper, yet early riser in a triple room, Samarasinghe found himself in a meeting with his roommates; they asked if there was any other way he could wake up in the morning, since his current method of using the loudest alarm he could find was interrupting everyone’s sleep.
The three UC San Diego college students searched online for a reasonable solution only to find no such product. And so, PAQ Wear was born as a fun project to design an alarm that would allow college roommates to wake up without disturbing each other’s sleep.
We sat down with Yohann Samarasinghe, PAQ Wear Co-Founder and CEO, and Daphne Kim, PAQ Wear Branding Director, to discuss their journey building a startup in San Diego’s growing tech ecosystem.
Year Founded: June 2018
Key Players: Yohann Samarasinghe (Founder and CEO), Samarth Aggarwal (CTO), Pavel Galchenko (CMO), Yinghao Li (Lead Software Engineer), Daphne Kim (Branding Director), Derek O’Connor (Lead Data Scientist)
Headquarters: Currently, the team works remotely throughout La Jolla and is planning to find a permanent headquarters after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
Inspiration: After recognizing the problem that he was having with his roommates, Samarasinghe realized that anyone who shares a room with another – whether it be college roommates, siblings, or even couples – must experience the same difficulty when it comes to interrupted sleep.
He wanted to create a product that would wake the user up without waking up anyone else and also wake them up feeling better and more energized. Reimagining the alarm system was the best way to address the primary touchpoint between sleeping and waking up.
Samarasinghe, a UCSD nanoengineering alumnus (2019), explained: “Current alarms right now rely on you being scared or jolted awake, creating a very jarring morning experience. I wanted to fix that.”
Technology: The team designed VibeRise, a wearable wristband with integrated smart technology, that wakes up the user with gentle vibrations to their arm. They realized that other wearable tech devices such as Fitbit and Apple Watch were clunky and uncomfortable, meaning that users never wore them to sleep. To solve that with VibeRise, the team chose to use smart fabric instead of plastic or rubber. Smart fabric is cool and soft to the touch, and is antimicrobial as well as anti-odorous. Additionally, smart fabric is extremely sustainable, made with recycled bark from birch trees and is biodegradable.
“We wanted to solve problems with design in the current market and also solve general problems with modern consumerism,” Samarasinghe said.
The PAQ Wear team created the prototype in 2018 and then spent 2019 doing user testing and product development. This year is being devoted to marketing as PAQ Wear rolls out its launch campaign. PAQ Wear launched Vibe Rise on June 9, 2020. Check it out here.
Currently the startup is accepting orders exclusively through Indiegogo. Once the campaign has finished, PAQ Wear will be selling VibeRise on its own site and through Amazon.
How it Works: The VibeRise technology uses vibrotactile haptic feedback, which causes neurons in your skin to vibrate and wake you up.
“VHF was the result of research into how the body reacts to physical stimuli, especially vibrations, during circadian functions like falling asleep and waking up. To effectively, yet gently, wake someone up, we knew VibeRise needed to use a low-intensity stimulus which still had the potential to yield a strong physiological response. After reading through the literature on psychophysics and iterating through our prototypes, we ultimately implemented an effective, VHF-centric product design.” Samarsinghe explained.
These haptic motors are placed on either side of your wrist bone through the bracelet. Then, when it’s time for you to wake up, they create very gentle, soft vibrations that are felt throughout the entirety of your forearm.
To make it smart technology, the team paired it up with an app that covers all the touchpoints of a healthy sleep routine. Some of the app’s prime features include sleep length tracking, time spent in bed when not asleep, and, perhaps most importantly, how much sleep debt you are accumulating.
“Sleep debt is a phenomenon in which individuals sleep less than they should during the week and then try to make up for it by oversleeping during the weekend,” Samarasinghe explained.
Many Americans experience this form of sleep deprivation in today’s society, something that most scientists attribute to excess demands at work, access to 24-hour entertainment, and the increased popularity of social media. According to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, just over 33% of Americans are currently not getting enough sleep and are subject to the accumulation of sleep debt.
The team noticed that current apps provide similar information but not how to act upon it, therefore making the information completely inactionable. The PAQ Wear team wanted to fix that by providing easily understandable feedback that users can take to better their sleep habits.
“For instance, if someone is accumulating sleep debt, the app will recommend how you can add something like 30 extra minutes of sleep every night so you avoid crashing on the weekends, ” Samarasinghe said, explaining that these easy-to-implement fixes mean that VibeRise only has to be worn at night and users will wake up feeling better and with improved mental health.
Challenges: Samarasinghe cited his number one challenge is expectation management, explaining that resolving both internal and external expectations was definitely the hardest part of being a startup founder.
“When you’re building a team with college students, you have the expectation of people working 40+ hours a week, but students in college just can’t do that.”
Externally, startups are a slow progress and success never comes as fast as people think, so they couldn’t expect rapid results and success. Instead, Samarasinghe decided that his top priority for his company would be to make sure that all of his employees continue to enjoy the work they’re doing.
“No one’s making a windfall of money here and so the work must be exciting; the people you’re working with have to enjoy themselves,” he explained.
Another major challenge that PAQ Wear experienced was company management – at first, the founding team thought that the more employees they had, the quicker their progress would be. Although it worked out at first, they ultimately found that managing a productive workflow was difficult with the team size. Yohan discussed how one dedicated person was equivalent to five average people and was easier to manage, citing Daphne Kim (Branding Director) specifically as being more valuable than their entire original marketing team.
Today, the team may only have six people, but their progress is quicker than ever before.
Funding: The PAQ Wear is 100% self-funded, all bootstrapped through the money that the team has won at pitch competitions. From their previous startup attempt, Yohann and Pavel won a $50,000 check for the Department of Clean Energy Tech Competition. The rest was out of pocket, resulting in a total funding expense of just over $30,000. Additionally, the PAQ team were finalists in the Triton Entrepreneur Challenge and grand finalists for the Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition.
The team chose not to rely on venture capitalists or angel investments because they “wanted to keep the focus on product development, not become part of the institutional capital game,” Samarasinghe said. “Since it’s our own money, we don’t have to please anyone nor do we have to appeal to any outside sources.”
Mentors: The team cites Dr. Debbie Chen, founder of Hydrostasis as their most influential mentor. Not only is she an expert in the field of startups, but also a solo minority female founder, who’s grit and insight has strongly influenced PAQ’s own approach to business.
PAQ Wear’s other key mentor is Dr. Silvia Mah, who Yohann affectionately referred to as the “godmother” of UCSD startups.
On the Horizon: According to Samarasinghe, his first goal for PAQ Wear is to make sure that everyone on his team still loves what they’re doing. After that, he hopes to sell enough products to facilitate their growth in order to make sure everyone on his team finally yields the fruit of their hard work.
In the long-term, Samarasinghe hopes to target the problem of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a phenomenon in which infants die as a result of asphyxiation while sleeping. Although SIDS is totally preventable as long as a parent wakes up their child, the issue arises when parents don’t realize their child is suffocating.
SIDS is a major cause of infant death in rural and underdeveloped areas, especially in southeast Asia. Samarasinghe plans to make a monitor that babies can wear on their wrists (similar to VibeRise) that alerts their parents that they’re not getting enough oxygen.
Additionally, he wants to use the proceeds from VibeRise to subsidize his SIDS monitor and make it widely available for the people who need it.
“My goal has never been to change the world. Instead, it’s to create a good, strong product that does what it’s supposed to do. When the product is there, everything else will follow,” Samarasinghe said.
San Diego Tech Ecosystem: The PAQ team loves San Diego as the birthplace of their startup; Kim and Samarasinghe agree that San Diego has just enough of the Bay Area’s energy to be productive, but is close enough to be easily connected.
Kim also mentioned that they appreciate the fact that the San Diego startup community is still up-and-coming. “Since the startup community is a little bit smaller, it’s also very tight knit and super supportive.”
Samarasinghe also discussed how both UCSD and the San Diego community have great resources for people who want to pursue their ideas. The one thing he wishes there was more of, however, is more experienced entrepreneurs as mentors like Chen and Mah.
But overall, PAQ Wear believes that the San Diego tech ecosystem has been great for their startup. Samarasinghe summed it up perfectly: “If you believe in what you’re doing, you can definitely get your ideas off the ground.”
Editor’s Note: TritonTech is an original series on UC San Diego created by Fresh Brewed Tech that showcases the innovative ideas born in the halls of academia that are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond.