Ali and Sharmin Habib were not aspiring entrepreneurs. Their parents, immigrants to Canada, instilled in them at a young age the idea to pursue professions that provide.
They did just that. Ali became a mechanical engineer and Sharmin, an optometrist.
But that all changed after Ali sought out a solution to a common problem.
It started in 2010 when Ali was experiencing itchy, burning and stinging sensations in his eyes that worsened after a “digital marathon.” He went to see his sister, Sharmin, for an eye exam where she diagnosed him with Meibomian Gland Dysfunction (MGD).
MGD, a common cause of Dry Eye Syndrome, occurs when the tiny oil glands on our lid margins get clogged. Once clogged, these glands no longer secrete adequate oil, which causes our tears to evaporate more quickly, leading to dry eyes. Traditional therapy for MGD involves using a warm compress to help the oil move more freely.
Sharmin instructed Ali to heat up a small towel and leave it sit over his closed eyes until it cooled down. Ali tried out his sister’s recommendation, but soon found water dripping into his ear and the compress cooling down too quickly to be of any use. To Ali, there had to be a better solution than a warm towel.
“I brought an almost mechanical lens to it,” he says. “Like, hey, there’s this valve that doesn’t seem to be working and it’s getting clogged. And I kept imagining a car engine, for example, that if the oil gets gummed up in the pistons and it’s not going to flow very properly, or the pistons are not going to move properly. It was a kind of curiosity of how problems were being solved and why things were being done a certain way, and why people weren’t being curious about doing it a different way.”
His curiosity led him to work on a solution. He applied for a Health Commercialization Grant through Alberta Innovates and was awarded $100,000. He started working full-time on a prototype device, creating the Edmonton-based company, Umay, in 2014.
Sharmin was intrigued by what her brother was working on. Ali encouraged her to join him at Umay, but she was reluctant at first to jump out of her optometry career into “unknown territory.”
“I had barely stepped into clinical practice and gotten my feet wet with existing textbook solutions for MGD, let alone consider revolutionizing at home care altogether,” she says. “But, I have to say, it excited me because it fuelled our joint passion to maximize impact and empower and help people.”
The prototype was essentially a mechanical eye heat mask, a better solution to a warm compress. While refining the prototype, a malfunction occurred, which led to a key discovery that expanded the possibilities of how the device could be used.
“What ended up happening was we had a set-point temperature that we wanted to achieve because there’s an optimal temperature for the blocked gland to start melting,” says Ali. “And so, as the temperature would ramp up it would ramp up too quickly and then trigger a safety circuit, and then it would cool down and then heat up again, cool down and heat up. And that experience actually was something that I experienced when doing a meditation course called MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.”
It’s a practice that was designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which takes a series of Buddhist practices, but strips them of the religious elements.
“One of them is called body scan, and in body scan you essentially put all your focus and attention to one body part and then you kind of move along with different parts of your body,” says Ali. “And it was in that moment that I remember feeling like this is kind of like that same feeling where you were paying attention. It was a lot more engaging and I was present. That’s where we started to say, hey this practice itself could be very powerful, just from disconnection.”
This revelation eventually led to their creation of Rest — a wellness device, placed over the eyes, that delivers periocular cooling and warming cycles. Warming cycles, intended to be used in the evening, promote sleep onset and increase the amount of time we spend in deep sleep. Cooling cycles are used in the morning to energize, reduce inflammation and increase natural tear production. They refer to this mindful wake-up and wind-down routine as “thermal meditation.”
During the pandemic, the Government of Canada put out a call requesting new technologies that might support mental health in response to its employees’ increased screen time. Umay partnered with the Government of Canada and provided Rest to 500 federal employees. Participants provided feedback through validated questionaries.
“We gave very little instruction on how to use it,” says Sharmin. “And we found that not only were there benefits, but they were able to use terms like, ‘this is helping me create a habit for routine relaxation, it’s forcing me to relax, it’s helping me take pause.’ And so that helped kind of validate the benefits beyond like the actual symptoms that they were experiencing, and that there was space that people would make in their day to do this regularly.”
This past autumn, Ali and Sharmin pitched Rest on Dragons’ Den, where they negotiated a deal with Michele Romanow.
“She’s been really supportive of the work that we’re doing, [she] resonates with the problem,” says Ali. “And she has a strong kind of marketing team behind her as well as an operational team as well. So, we’re working with them right now.”
Their parents, who initially didn’t understand why Ali and Sharmin left their stable nine-to-five jobs to pursue innovation, are extremely proud to see what they have accomplished.
“You know, they were big fans of Dragons’ Den, the TV show,” says Ali. “And then we have this picture where we had an opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Trudeau and so your parents feel pretty proud. And it’s kind of cool.”
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Edify