The Zennea Technologies team: (l-r) Oliver Luo, Rachel Chase, Ryan Threlfall and Nell Du met through SFU’s Technology Entrepreneurship@SFU program and are now working towards commercializing their product.

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Student innovation helps puts chronic snoring to bed

October 03, 2018
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By Marianne Meadahl

The SFU student team behind Zennea Technologies has developed a prototype for improving how we sleep. But these young entrepreneurs are far too busy to count many ZZZs themselves just yet.

The Zennea team has just completed a stint at the SOSV HAX accelerator program in Shenzhen, China, considered the Asian Silicon Valley for those developing hardware, robotics and connected devices. They are now busy preparing for pre-clinical trials in the U.S. for the latest version of their product, called ZENS.

ZENS is a medical device that aims to reduce chronic snoring in cases where, for most of the night, snoring reaches an average decibel level greater than 40.  

ZENS, which sits under the jaw, sends subtle pulses to the nerve controlling the tongue’s main dilator muscle. This prevents snoring from occurring. ZENS can also track a patient’s general quality of sleep, using a smartphone app.

“Thirty million people in the U.S. alone are chronically sleep deprived because of their own snoring—and that’s not counting their unlucky sleeping partners,” says mechatronic systems engineering (MSE) student, Ryan Threlfall.

Threlfall, business student Rachel Chase, and Oliver Luo (MSE)—who are all convocating this October—and  fourth-year MSE student Nell Du—met through SFU’s Technology Entrepreneurship@SFU (Tech-E) program. The program helped them develop their idea and find the resources to secure funding for what would be SFU’s first international entrepreneurship co-op (eCo-op).

The team was one of 15 global companies—and one of the youngest—to spend time at the HAX accelerator in China, followed by a few months of fundraising in San Francisco. The company is a client of SFU’s Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection (CCSVC), which supported Zennea’s eCo-op stint in China with a home, mentorship and other business services.

SFU’s new eCo-op program funds students to develop their prototypes. Zennea, which recently hired its first employee, has already raised $250,000 (U.S.) in equity financing and another $125,000 (U.S.) in competitions and grants—including $35,000 in funds and in-kind prizes as winners of SFU’s 2018 Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize.

Students Luo and Du have remained in China where they are handling manufacturing, while Chase is busy setting up the clinical work in Houston, and Threlfall is fundraising between Vancouver and San Francisco. The team has filed a provisional patent and plans multiple rounds of clinical trials before launching its product.

The team members are quick to acknowledge SFU’s role in their fast rise to success.

“We all feel that the funding, coaching, resources and general support from Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection and Tech-E are the reasons why we’ve gotten so far,” says Threlfall.

“We’re a team that really believes in people and relationships, and we’ve formed some pretty solid bonds with mentors from these two programs. And while this has been our full-time pursuit since last September, there’s no slowdown in sight.”

Business professor Sarah Lubik, SFU’s director of entrepreneurship, says the Zennea team has been “a pioneer in the rapidly growing constellation” of SFU entrepreneurship programs.

“The Zennea team has been an incredible example of the creativity, determination, adaptability and interdisciplinary collaboration we are working to support and amplify at SFU,” she says.

Zennea is one of dozens of young entrepreneurial success stories to benefit from CCSVC, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this fall. Over the past 10 years, CCSVC has drawn more than 8,000 participants to its programs, mentored more than 750 teams and engaged nearly 200 early start-ups with its business development services.