Most people have a bad habit. It could be something annoying but mostly harmless, like hitting the snooze button. But for others, like HabitAware co-founder Aneela Idnani, repetitive body behaviors are part of a larger, more complicated mental health issue.
Over the last two years, Idnani, her husband and a small, dedicated team of Twin Cities techies have worked to build HabitAware, a health tech company whose Keen bracelet aims to people be more aware of body-focused repetitive behaviors like nail biting or hair pulling.
Idnani was inspired to build Keen after her own struggles with Trichotillomania, a disorder that causes people to feel irresistible urges to pull out body hair. Idnani struggled with the disease for nearly a decade before she knew it had a name. She told no one, not even her husband.
“It’s the main reason we need to end that stigma surrounding mental health issues,” Idnani said. “People sometimes think they can’t talk to someone because they’ll say, ‘There’s something wrong with that person.’ They hide it, and it makes them sicker.”
Idnani and her husband, Sameer Kumar, wanted to build a bracelet that would monitor behavior like hair pulling. During an IoT Fuse Hack Day, they developed a prototype, which Idnani described as a yellow slap bracelet with a small module glued to the top.
She and Kumar teamed up with local engineers John Pritchard and Kirk Klobe to develop a bracelet that eventually became Keen. The finished product is a slim, smooth bracelet that buzzes softly when it feels the wearer start to bite nails, pull skin or play with hair. This vibration, according to Idnani, shifts the behavior from the subconscious to conscious mind.
Idnani emphasizes that the bracelet is not a cure for disorders like Trichotillomania, but it helps people take control of the behvaiors. Idnani said that she still plays with her eyebrows, which she used to pick at obsessively for almost 10 years, but it’s easier to stop herself.
“It’s helped me regain a lot of energy and time, and it’s starting to do that for other people too. Now they can take that energy and do something with it that impacts others.”
After HabitAware’s launch in early 2016, Kumar and Idnani quit their day jobs to run the company as CEO and marketing/design lead respectively. The company officially began selling the Keen bracelet in March of this year.
Earlier this month at Twin Cities Startup Week, Idnani presented Keen in a women entrepreneurship showcase at the University of Minnesota, and at a health tech pitch competition at Impact Hub, which she won.
Idnani and her husband have been actively involved in the Twin Cities startup ecosystem since they moved to the area in 2011, attending meetups, hack days and other events. Idnani credits the community with playing a major role in supporting and growing HabitAware.
“It’s just a super supportive community,” she said. “People are always will to help and troubleshoot. Everyone seems to understand that if you support them it’s going to lift up the entire city.”
Idnani’s mental health mission extends beyond ensuring the success of Keen and HabitAware. Through her increasing participation in panels, pitch competitions and having frank discussions about her own struggles with Trichotillomania, Idnani hopes to break the stigma surrounding mental health in startup culture.
“There’s this view that business is without emotion – that every decision is a rational one, but that’s not really true,” she said. “It’s ok not to be ok. And we should learn to be more vulnerable about that.”