According to Francois Kress, a veteran fashion executive who’d spent over 20 years managing top-shelf luxury brands, the most coveted luxury of modern society (especially in the time of a pandemic) is not designer handbags or shoes, but a night of sound sleep.
Depending on which survey you read, somewhere between 27 percent and 62 percent of Americans struggle to fall asleep on a regular basis; across the board, the majority of insomniacs cite stress and anxiety as the biggest reasons for insomnia.
In 2017, after working at brands such as Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, Kress cofounded Feelmore Labs and began working with neuroscientists and psychiatrists on a quest to find a solution to this problem. Four years later, the company unveiled its inaugural product, Cove, a headband-like device that claims to be able to “cancel stress” by gently stimulating a small area of skin behind the ears.
How? That gentle vibration in that area activates specific receptors on the skin that connect to the brain’s posterior insular cortex, which regulates emotional functions, including anxiety and stress. You just need to wear the device for 20 minutes once or twice a day, anytime anywhere—the vibration is so gentle you would barely feel it—and, after a few sessions, voilà! You suddenly sleep better.
“We just trigger your own wiring, and the body does the rest,” Kress explained. It’s not going to work for everyone, he cautioned, although four years of studies and tests show that it does work for most people.
Feelmore Labs’ quick and painless fix for anxiety and insomnia doesn’t come cheap—Cove retails for $490. That’s a lot for a wearable that does only one thing and just might work. In an interview with Observer in February, Kress explains the science behind Cove, how it’s everything but a head massager, and why he believes that this product is compelling enough to find a market despite its hefty price tag.
Observer: Making a consumer device that touches the brain sounds scary. As far as I know, the human brain is still very well understood. How did the idea of Cove come along and how did the R&D process unfold?
Francois Kress: I want to clarify that Cove is not a head massager. A massage is about oxygenation and moving the blood around. What we do is neuro-stimulation by activating a skin-to-brain pathway that exists in humans and most large mammals. There are very specific receptors on your skin that connect to a small part of your brain that controls anxiety. There has been academic literature about those receptors over the past few decades. We thought that there should be a way to activate these receptors and see what happens.
We began conducting studies with the help of neuroscientists and psychiatrists and found a way to target this part of the brain by vibrating very, very lightly on the back of the ear.
We tested Cove on thousands of people who were either perfectly healthy or had problems with sleep, stress and sometimes clinical issues for up to 45 days. We looked at EEG, MRI and asked them how they felt after the first session and over time. The first thing people noticed is how fast they’d fall asleep. Many people said they slept much better after just a few sessions.
I have had sleep issues all my life. Overachiever type of person, you know. I’ve been wearing it for three years now. And I fall asleep almost immediately after turning off the light.
Does it work for everyone?
With some exceptions, of course, because life is not perfect. What we do is very empirical and experimental, but the numbers we got show that it’s really working. It’s not going to work for everybody, just like anything made for the brain.
How is it different than other brain wearables that are in use in clinical settings?
Like you said, we know very little about the human brain, maybe 10 percent or less. But what we know very well is electrical neuro-stimulation. Electricity is great as an invasive technology, but it’s not suitable for external neuro-stimulation, because it’s not very targeted; nobody really knows what happens next when you throw electricity on your skull.
There is also magnetic neuro-stimulation in the clinical setting. You have these big machines that send magnetic fields into your brain. It’s very targeted, but those are multimillion-dollar machines that are not consumer-friendly.
What we do is mechanical neuro-stimulation. It’s a pathway that already exists in humans. We just trigger your own wiring, and the body does the rest.
What piqued your interest in wearable tech and the startup world after a very long and successful career in luxury fashion?
I had a great career in luxury fashion for 20 years. But I have scientific training. I always wanted to reconnect with science even during my time in fashion. I’ve sat on the board of a biotech company since 2010 and kind of rediscovered science through that angle.
I really wanted to find something that could be consumer-friendly while allowing me to apply all the beautiful rules of marketing I acquired over the years. You know, a lot of great tech products never grow enough, because the marketing is not very well handled. Sometimes engineers are very in love with the technology, but they forget that there is also a human being on the other side.
Cove is not a luxury product, per se. But I think we’re still providing a luxury experience because sleeping well is a luxury for many people in modern society.
How does your expertise from luxury marketing transfer to running a startup behind a very tech-intensive product?
I have run companies all my life: small, big, subsidiaries, larger public companies. Being a CEO of any type of company gives you the training to run another company. And I feel those skills have been checked over the years.
Specifically, experience with luxury fashion helps me understand that a product is not always about functionality. In tech, people always think about solving a problem. Luxury isn’t about solving a problem. You don’t buy a $20,000 handbag to carry your stuff around town; you could do that with a plastic bag for no money.
Obviously, we need to be very factual and functional. But we also need to create a dream. That’s where my background comes into play.
What is Cove’s average customer like? You’ve been marketing to a very high-end consumer base your whole life. Is Cove any different?
We first started looking at people who have a lifestyle in which performance is important and technology is welcome. Now that we’ve been shipping products for a few months, what we’ve noticed is that a lot of people outside that target group are also enjoying the product. Our customers are particularly attracted to the sleep proposition. So, any adults (because we didn’t do studies on children) who has issues with falling asleep or staying asleep are our target customer.
When you started developing this device you probably didn’t see a pandemic coming. I’d imagine COVID-19 must be a huge blow to your business from an operational standpoint. In the meantime, though, since Cove is designed to reduce stress, it sounds like exactly what people need in times like this.
Like you said, there’s nothing good about a pandemic. For us, there’s good and bad. The bad was that our supply chain was massively disturbed. We design everything in Europe and manufacture products in China. None of our engineers is able to go over there for a year now. So, we ran a few months behind in production.
But we didn’t change our strategy. I think the pandemic has made discussion about anxiety, stress and mental wellness more pertinent than ever and central to conversions in society.
The current version of Cove does just one thing. Are you working on any new applications? What will be the next-generation Cove look like?
Yes. The current vibration addresses affective issues. We have discovered that by changing the vibration slightly—I won’t give you too much details—we’ll be able to move the needle on to cognitive functions, including memory, intellectual performance, problem-solving, etc. That could help treat chronic conditions, such as ADHD. That will be on the clinical side, of course. And we are still looking into how to implement it.
Also on the clinical side, we are running two trials under a different company brand: one on anxiety and the other on insomnia. We are in talks with the FDA to get clearance for those claims so that doctors can prescribe our technology for anxiety and insomnia in the future. We expect to get that cleared within a few months.
Clarification: Cove is not a FDA-regulated medical device. Feelmore Labs doesn’t make any medical claims about treating anxiety or insomnia. The device aims to reduce stress and improves quality of sleep.