NextSense’s CEO is JONATHAN BERENT. While we waited for our entrées on the terrace of an Italian restaurant in Mountain View, California, the 48-year-old was talking like a podcast at 1.5 speed. His filibuster was about how he got into brain health in the first place. His obsession was not with his hearing or with his health; it was with his sleep.
Born to a single mother and a slew of relatives in Seymour, Indiana—the little town immortalised by John Mellencamp’s song—Berent claims he struggled to fit in and was frequently expelled from school. He immersed himself in his interests, which included designing little games for Commodore 64 cartridges. He came upon a book on lucid dreaming as a youngster, a semi-conscious state in which dreamers have some influence over their images. The book, written by Stephen LaBerge, the field’s leading authority, hooked Berent on the slumbering mind. Berent adds that when it comes to sleep, “the physical laws do not apply, and the social norms do not apply.” He began recording his dreams in a diary when he was 18 years old, and it has become a lifelong effort for him.
Berent got into Stanford and began studying computer science, but he became stuck on a final in an introductory course. He changed his major to philosophy, assuming he would catch up with his coworkers later.
A philosophy major, on the other hand, is hardly a surefire route to landing a wonderful job in Silicon Valley. Berent found an entry-level job at Sun Microsystems in a backwater section analysing contracts after some research.
By 2011, he would make his way to Google, where he joined the AdWords sales team (now called Google Ads). He was a natural at it. He oversaw a huge crew and worked in an office that he designed to seem like a health resort, complete with a yoga mat and a be-here-nowness “knowledge library.” (“I do not suppose incense was burning there,” one visitor adds, “but it kind of is in my recollection.”) He was experimenting with polyphasic sleep at the same time, going to bed about 10 p.m., getting up three to four hours later, and having 20-minute naps. It was not long before he ran upon another sleep aficionado, this time at a different AdWords office.
Joe Owens was a night of sleep and circadian rhythms expert with a degree in neuroscience. Their first meeting was a Google Meet session that lasted for hours. Berent went into depth about his sleep hacking exploits: He noted that as a morning person, his naps successfully provided him with several new beginnings in which to learn about neurology, eat novels, and practise the drums. Both ended up guest teaching in a well-known Stanford course on sleep research, and the two guys were quickly bouncing ideas off one other for sleep-enhancing devices.
The lucid dreaming specialist, LaBerge, had become a mentor to Berent, and he shared with him a study in which playing a sound to slumberers improved the slow waves associated with deeper sleep. Berent believed that a product based on that knowledge may help people sleep better by condensing eight hours of sleep into six.
Google stated in April 2016 that it will launch Area 120, an artisanal version of Y Combinator. Berent and Owens applied and were turned down, but they were sent to X, Alphabet’s “moonshot” division, which takes on more risky, longer-term initiatives than Area 120. Owens took over the project to supercharge sleep, and X took up the project full-time.
One of their initial steps was to collaborate with Phyllis Zee, a renowned neurologist at Northwestern University. They put $500,000 into the study, which involved delivering audio impulses to earphone-wearing patients to increase the slow waves of deeper sleep. That is when they ran into their first snag: some people replied as expected, but others didn’t, and they could not figure out why.