Roga secures $1.7 million CAD to reduce stress and burnout with its nerve-stimulating wearable

Neuroscientist and former Google Pixel PM team up to tackle workplace stress with Roga.

Toronto and Los Angeles, Calif.-based neurotech startup Roga has set its sights on reducing intense stress and burnout in a convenient, cost-effective, and discreet way.

The mental healthcare-focused company has secured $1.7 million CAD ($1.2 million USD) in pre-seed funding and support from a slew of healthtech investors to fuel the launch of its next-generation wearable device, which it plans to roll out this fall.

The company is led by a pair of former clinical anxiety disorder patients in Canadian chief scientist Alison Smith, a neuroscientist by training, and CEO Ami Lebendiker, a longtime Google product manager who helped bring its Pixel phones to market. Roga rolled out its first app-connected, wearable over-ear device last year. Since then, the startup has seen some success selling to other companies as a tool for reducing stress among their employee base.

“[Other people] can’t tell that someone is wearing a wearable device to help them to emotionally regulate.”

Given the stigma surrounding mental healthcare, discretion has been a focus for Roga, and this is reflected in its existing offering. “It’s very discreet, and yet very fashionable,” Smith told BetaKit in an exclusive interview. “[Other people] can’t tell that someone is wearing a wearable device to help them to emotionally regulate. It looks like a pair of Apple headphones.”

Roga’s existing wearable, which it is currently selling for $269 USD as a wellness device, delivers “a very specific, low-level, gentle electrical stimulation to the peripheral nerve behind each of the ears” that “sends a feedback signal to the brain to reduce brain activity associated with stress,” Smith claims.

The startup pairs this device with a mobile app that offers accompanying guided meditation sessions generated by artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics to help users monitor their treatment progress. Smith noted that recent advances in AI models have helped make guided meditation more personalized and impactful. “Gone are the days of pre-recorded, guided meditations,” she said. “They’re not specific enough.”

Roga’s pre-seed round, which closed in June and was raised via simple agreement for future equity, marks the company’s first external financing to date. It came from Exceptional Ventures, ODX by On Deck, MindEd Ventures, the AngelList Fund, the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI), the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI), The Firehood, and undisclosed angel investors, including senior directors from Samsung and Google. 

The Los Angeles-headquartered startup plans to invest this capital in manufacturing, sales, marketing, and engineering as it puts the final touches on the next iteration of its device and gears up to bring it to market for mass production.

According to Smith, Roga’s approach is backed by science. “The type of stimulation we’re providing has been studied for decades,” she said. “We are the first neurotech company to miniaturize it, but it’s based on many decades of science, and it’s the only type of stimulation recognized from a regulatory standpoint to treat intense stress and anxiety at home.”

Roga’s co-founders include CEO Ami Lebendiker, a former Google Pixel product manager, and chief scientist Alison Smith, a Canadian neuroscientist-turned-neurotech entrepreneur.

“When OBI first met [Smith] in 2022, we found the Roga technology to be unique, thoughtfully designed, and very effective for anxiety relief,” OBI president and scientific director Tom Mikkelsen told BetaKit. “Most importantly, [Smith] and her team had taken the time and made significant efforts to obtain clinical validation of her wearable product, which made it close to market-ready and very easy for us to support.”

After launching the company in 2020, the founders initially thought that selling primarily direct-to-consumer would make the most sense, but following outreach from senior human resources (HR) leaders, Smith said they realized a business-to-business approach would be more effective. Roga sees room to step in and help tackle workplace stress at a time when therapy has become more difficult to access due to rising demand, worker shortages, and costs.

“Right now, there are not enough clinical talk therapists to meet the enormous demand, so it’s incredibly difficult to find a therapist and it’s wildly expensive,” said Smith, who noted that Roga’s main competitors are telehealth talk therapy platforms.

Per a recent Gallup poll on the state of the global workplace, 41 percent of employees report experiencing “a lot of stress.” Many companies currently offer telehealth talk therapy through employee assistance programs (EAPs) to help address this, but Smith noted that the use of EAPs is low. Citing multiple studies, consultants, and HR professionals, the HR-focused nonprofit SHRM Foundation reported in 2019 that EAP utilization averages below 10 percent.

“We have discovered that employees typically don’t want to engage with a talk therapist because their schedules are already over-demanding,” Smith said.

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Roga, which has already landed five corporate customers in sectors that include software development and cryptocurrency, is targeting industries known for having high employee stress, a group that Smith said also includes primary healthcare and education. 

Smith claimed that Roga has been able to achieve a 35 percent engagement rate with its initial five business clients, which she credited largely to the fact that company employees can use Roga where and when they want. Down the road, Roga hopes to become a part of health insurance provider packages.

“We are going after the stress and burnout market, which is not a medical indication,” said Smith. The startup is also working towards medical device status for the indication of anxiety and has begun research to support its goal of achieving regulatory approval, with work taking place at the University of Waterloo and a mental health-focused hospital outside of Toronto.

“CABHI’s goal is to accelerate groundbreaking solutions that improve the lives of older persons, people living with dementia, and their caregivers, and Roga fills a much-needed gap in that space,” CABHI president and chief scientist Allison Sekuler told BetaKit. “We are thrilled by Health Canada’s recognition of Roga—a simple, innovative tool to address anxiety so that older persons can live their best lives.”

To date, Roga has shipped over 500 devices. Smith noted that one of Roga’s goals remains to reduce the cost of creating and manufacturing its hardware, something she said Lebendiker specializes in, having helped build devices for Google. Roga is currently developing a more concealable, wireless version of its product that Smith claims will enable customers to move around more easily while wearing it.

Feature image courtesy Roga.

Josh Scott

Josh Scott

Josh Scott is a BetaKit reporter focused on telling in-depth Canadian tech stories and breaking news. His coverage is more complete than his moustache. He was also the winner of SABEW Canada’s 2023 Jeff Sanford Best Young Journalist award.

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