Every night, Patrick Skluzacek woke up with a pounding heart and his sweat-soaked T-shirt. The details of his nightmares often escaped when he opened his eyes sharply, but he knew their main features. He was back in the Iraq war, trekking to or from the infernal insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, alert to the ever-present danger while he commanded a convoy of tankers to supply a maritime base. Even years after returning home, his racing spirit could not adjust to the calm of civilian life.
After a while, the fear of nightmares became more destructive than the nightmares themselves. Skluzacek remembers trying to wipe them out with antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, and increasing amounts of alcohol. Nothing worked for long. The nightmares returned as a nighttime horror show. He thinks he slept about two hours a night.
Skluzacek’s life took a downward spiral – he divorced and lost his job as a mechanic – and he struggled to persevere. Then in 2015, eight years after Skluzacek returned from the war, his son Tyler had an idea.
Tyler Skluzacek, then a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, envisioned programming a smartwatch to monitor and disrupt nightmares. He entered HackDC 2015, a 36-hour hackathon dedicated to finding innovative ways to help people post-traumatic stress disorder. His team programmed a Pebble watch (an old but now defunct laptop) to measure heart rate and body movements during sleep. This would send vibrations to the wearer’s wrist as these indicators rise, signaling the onset of a nightmare. The young Skluzacek had his idea of work of assistance dogs, who lick or nudge veterans with PTSD who struggle or moan in their sleep, to disrupt their nightmares and allow them to sleep more peacefully. The day after he returned home from the hackathon, Tyler brought the prototype to his father. “I was literally building the thing for my dad,” he says. “On the way back, I had no intention of turning this business into a business.”
Hearing that this son wanted to help, the elder Skluzacek cried. Then he started to wear the device. “I slept like a baby,” says Patrick, who has since remarried and works as a mechanic again. Most of his nightmares are gone and he no longer uses the device.
Now, an updated version can help thousands of other Veterans sleep better. Minneapolis-based startup NightWare developed Tyler’s concept, raising investment funds, partnering with the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, and conducting a clinical trial. The “digital therapy system” uses sensors from a specially programmed Apple Watch to create a basic sleep profile for the wearer. The sensors can then detect the increased heart rate and body movements associated with disturbed sleep. The watch delivers vibrations in 10 second cycles, increasing in intensity to excite but not wake the wearer, until readings return to normal levels.
The first hint of the strong demand for such a device came when Tyler Skluzacek’s team won “Best Mobile App for Clinicians” in the hackathon. The media coverage that followed drew emails from hundreds of veterans. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $ 1,200 and $ 26,000. At first, he called the device MyBivy, in reference to the bivouacs, or compact shelters that combat soldiers use for protection at night, and he tested it on other veterans.
Grady Hannah, who spent 15 years in Silicon Valley and worked in business development in the video game industry, had returned to his hometown of Minneapolis when he saw the media coverage of Tyler’s hackathon success. He first became an advisor to MyBivy, then bought the rights from Tyler to create NightWare, and is currently the CEO of the company. (Tyler is still a consultant for NightWare but has no formal role in the company.)