“[Neurotherapy] is not a new methodology by any stretch, but we are using technology to unleash it.” - Paola Telfer wants you to master your brain
With Blackcomb as a backdrop, Telfer’s Whistler-based business, Sens.ai, is building better neurotherapy.
The honorific sensei refers to someone whose age and wisdom shape their excellence as a teacher. For Paola Telfer, the CEO and co-founder of Whistler-based Sens.ai, a neurotechnology company embarking on an Indiegogo campaign to launch sales of their hardware, her company shares not only the pronunciation of a sensei but the approach of one, too.
“I really wanted something that was dot-a-i so the name itself would be the URL. That was where we started from. From there, it was a lot of brainstorming but sensei conveys the idea of having a coach that will guide you through a journey of development. That is the idea we're trying to convey. We've gone to great lengths to unlock this technology that has previously only been in elite clinics and used by top athletes and top executives,” Telfer explained.
To unlock this for their customers, Telfer and co. have developed a headset that looks like over-ear headphones but performs like a neurotherapy lab. Essentially, while it looks like the person wearing the Sens.ai hardware is deep in analysis of Certified Lover Boy’s b-side or in a guided Peloton workout, they are actually analyzing their brainwaves or in a guided meditation session. An app accompanies the headphones to show the user what the headphones deduced about your brain.
The device merges high tech and high comfort, like a Lazy Boy strapped to the passenger seat of a Tesla. It works by positioning cushy electrode sensors—Telfer took one out and squeezed it in front of her Zoom camera to show just how squishy it was (very)—that, when worn, measure brainwaves. The electrode sensors relay and analyze the brainwaves to collect the data that is sent back to the Sens.ai app.
In regards to the manufacturing of the device, “We have a partner, an American contract manufacturer, who is managing that for us. We've already taken significant steps to invest capital in pre-ordering some of the critical components, that might have been at risk. We are going to have our first production run in May 2022,” Telfer said—a nod to Covid-constrained supply chains—before sharing an endearing goal for the device: “make something really comfortable that our moms would wear,” Telfer quipped.
Today’s campaign launched on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform that specializes in innovative tech products. Sens.ai offers the opportunity to fund the startup as a “backer” or purchase a headset for $899 USD with a Black Friday-esque 39% off. Discounts are also available on 10 and 12 packs of the device or an in-person brain performance session led by one of the “world’s leading brain performance experts.” The app is available through a yearly membership.
“We're trying to make a device that will accompany you for life. It will have programs that will address what we refer to as more self-care sort of programs—brain fog, sleep management, stress management—to the next level—creativity, mindfulness, flow—then all the way to deepening meditation states. It will ebb and flow with you just like your life does. That's the intention of the coach, that it will be with you. It adapts to you,” she noted of the software side of Sens.ai.
“What is unique about Sens.ai is we're very focused on inner space. We're not trying to control our environments, whether virtual or physical. We’re trying to actually master our own brains. We have a combination of technologies. We call them Boost, Train and Assess. The most important [technology] for us is Train. Train is about developing long-term trait changes. We're teaching people, through our programs, how to activate these healthy brainstates on their own. There are so many different brainstates. None are better than the other. It's really about being able to call on what you need at that moment. I need to be creative right now or I need to be focused right now but sometimes I just need to be present with my family and friends. Those are all different things. We want people to have experiences. A healthy brain is a flexible brain and the brain can be trained to be efficient and to move between these different states. That's what we're trying to empower people with,” she expanded.
“If you try to learn with your intellect, it is more difficult to absorb the teachings on a deep level. The mind looks at something and says, I don't want that; I want this instead. But as you simply continue to train, something changes.” ― Linda Holiday, in Journey to the Heart of Aikido: The Teachings of Motomichi Anno Sensei
This passion for mindfulness stems from a difficult time in her life.
“I was rear-ended. This motor vehicle accident really threw my life into disarray. I had physical setbacks and I had psychological setbacks. I was stuck in the state of fight or flight. In that journey of healing, I tried so many different modalities, but I realized I couldn't really heal physically until I was out of that state of fight or flight. Then I came across neurotherapy,” Telfer recalled.
“I realized that there were these people doing this wonderful work in clinics around the world, that were healing people and they’re doing Peak Performance Training, advanced stuff. I went to one of these clinics and had quite a transformative experience. I was immediately enamoured with neurotechnology. As an engineer in training, I was thinking, how do we make this smaller? How do we make this available to everyone? It was very expensive,” she noted.
Further, Telfer reflected on the time she spent recovering from the accident. She understands the role it played in shaping her future—“Life setbacks really define us,” she said—but would prefer if others didn’t need a serious accident to be introduced to neurotherapy. “What if we didn't have to have a setback in life to start working on our mind potential?” Telfer continued.
This led to a grand moment of learning for her. The neurotherapy healed the fight or flight stress response she was having but she felt improved, not just healed. Telfer felt she could actually deepen her mental state, not just be mindful of it, a surprising revelation. “I had been meditating for decades before it was really mainstream. I happen to have been a very curious person and experimented a lot with different ways of moulding my own mind. When I came across this very direct way of accessing these deeper states of mind, I thought, how powerful is this?” she reflected.
Engineering is in Telfer’s blood. “I was one of these weird kids that really had an aptitude and love for physics and math, if you can believe it,” she said, describing the exact opposite experience of my own childhood. “My dad was an engineer. It was very natural for me to select electrical engineering as my first area of study. I'm really glad that I did. Also because of my dad, I had a lot of engineering influences and a lot of family, friends were engineers. I learned, well into my teens, this era is going to be this huge unlock of technology and science that is going to shape our future, we're going to see so much change. And so I knew that if I was well versed in technology, I would have more opportunity to be part of that change that impacts society.”
Fast Forward to Telfer’s first experience with neurotherapy and the engineering side of her brain fired as she tried to understand what made the space tick. “I realized that there were clinics that were less powerful than others. So, I was using my engineering mind to try and figure out, by interviewing people, getting to know people, going to conferences, what is the barrier for us to have a consistently fantastic experience—but make it scalable? If they’re technological, I have confidence that myself and my co-founder (Corey Julihn) can solve them,” she said.
While all that networking certainly supported Telfer’s technological understanding of the space, perhaps the bigger boon for her was the connections she made. “I met so many brilliant people. What we're doing with Sens.ai, we're standing on the shoulders of giants. [Neurotherapy] is not a new methodology by any stretch, but we are using technology to unleash it. We're making it smaller, more affordable while trying to keep it to the same quality,” she told me.
“We learn from the most experienced people, but we also learn from new students. Everyone is connected through the heart and develops a mutual understanding. It is important to create a place where that can happen.” ― Holiday
Telfer and I started our Zoom call swapping mutual appreciation for transcription software. But, her needs seemed far more important than mine. “I've been using the transcription service a little bit more lately. I find it really useful, especially when I'm talking to scientists. I want to refer to the exact terminology later. I'm not a neuroscientist. I'm an engineer, right? So, I feel like my role and my co-founder’s role was not only to unlock this from a technology perspective, but to learn a whole bunch, and it's been a fascinating journey. I've been so privileged to have such a great team of experts that really aligned with our mission and believed in our technological capabilities. I have had a lot of these meetings over Zoom just learning and absorbing and coming back with more questions…but making sure I read the transcripts,” she said with a smile.
The transcripts are being reviewed in a World Class resort town. Telfer and her family moved to Whistler eight years ago, realizing the remote work possibilities it took the rest of the world a pandemic to figure out.
“That was a real milestone in my life. I came to understand that I could still be a productive member of society, work remotely and have a backyard [of] mountains, beautiful lakes and recreation. Why not be in a place where you would vacation? Why can't you change the way you're living? That was a big aha for us and a big, bold move really in our careers as well,” she reflected.
“One of the things Corey and I really wanted was to gift this to our entire team. We're going to manage this in a way that’s outcomes-based, but we're going to expect that you're self-driven, you're capable and you’ve bought into the mission. We have a team that's just over 10 people right now. Those people are very loyal to us and very dedicated to the mission. A lot of them started in the Vancouver area. Now, I've got people in Bali, in New York, in Mexico—it's opened this whole thing up,” she expanded.
Zooming back in from her international team, I asked Telfer what it's like to build a company in Whistler. “Whistler is full of entrepreneurs because of a couple of things. To have a home and a family in Whistler is quite expensive, quite frankly. People have had to make trade-offs between what is most important in life, right? It's about how to live day-to-day. So, people here are really creative about how they do work. That's what I find. I have a circle of ladies—we call it the Circle of Entrepreneurs—from all types of businesses. Some are tech but others are completely different. It's actually a very entrepreneurial environment,” she told me.
Out of that home office with Blackcomb as a backdrop, Telfer has received immense backup both personally and financially. Sens.ai is the culmination of three years of R&D and $5 million of investment and boasts a roster of neurotherapy advisors that seems to imply all the networking Telfer did at conferences as she was starting out paid off. Now, she is hoping to add quality customers to this roster through today’s launch of hardware sales. “So, we're not [launching] to raise funds per se, right? But we are doing it to start a community. We believe that people are looking for peak performance, whether it's at work or in sports for their kids that are students that want to focus more or an ageing population—really anyone over 50—to hone in their cognitive longevity. So, we're looking to build that community,” she said.
Community is nothing new to Telfer. The forthcoming group who will don Sens.ai headsets will join Whistler’s Circle of Entrepreneurs, Telfer’s worldwide contingent of teammates growing alongside her within Sens.ai and the neuroscientists with whom she sipped weak coffee at those aforementioned conferences. With these communities in tow, Telfer is confident.
“It’s really a question of how many do we build?” she said of today’s launch.
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