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NLO Propeaq light
case 18 Jan 2017

Using light to get the best out of people

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for research into how internal biological clocks govern human and animal life at a genetic and molecular level. These mechanisms are responsible for the human body being naturally active during the day and resting at night. Sometimes, however, sleep/wake patterns can be disrupted, or our bodies have to be temporarily tricked into acting differently.

For the past thirty years, Toine Schoutens has been researching how we can use light and darkness to optimise people’s performance. Originally as a psychiatric nurse, but now as the CEO of Chrono Eyewear, the company behind the Propeaq glasses. Gymnasts, swimmers, track and field athletes and judokas using these glasses at the Rio Olympics won a total of eighteen medals, including six golds.

How did you come up with the idea for Propeaq glasses?

“They were developed after receiving questions from some top athletes. It all started with a phone call some time in 2006 from the swimming coach Marcel Wouda. He had read an old article I’d written about jetlag and said ‘In two years’ time we’re going to the Beijing Olympics with our swimming team. We expect that our swimmers are going to have quite a jetlag when we arrive and that that’s going to have an impact on their performance. But we’ve read that you can do something about that.’ So I arranged to meet and talk to him, and later also to Jacco Verhaeren, who was the head coach. And that’s how it all started. Together we drew up a whole programme to get twenty Dutch swimmers to Beijing without any signs of jetlag. And it worked as the women’s relay team and the long-distance swimmer Maarten van der Weijden all won gold medals. Over the next few years, various other top athletes and sports associations – ranging from judo, track and field, gymnastics, and cycling to speed skating – also contacted me.”

Most people will have experienced jetlag at some time in their lives. But what does it actually mean in physiological terms?

“Jetlag is a fairly harmless situation that occurs when your sleeping and waking rhythms are out of synch with the day and night rhythms of the time zone you’re in. Sleep/wake cycles, or circadian rhythms, are regulated by a group of light-sensitive brain cells. Light stimulates these cells to produce the metabolic hormone cortisol and to suppress the ‘night hormone’ melatonin. If that rhythm is disrupted, it’s not only your sleeping and waking patterns that get disrupted, but also, for example, your body temperature, blood pressure and digestive system. That makes you feel tired and in the end, you won’t perform so well. The extent to which jetlag affects people can vary considerably: one person can suffer far more than another. But a top athlete with jetlag can forget about winning a medal. It just won’t happen. One way to suppress jetlag is by arriving at your planned destination ahead of time, but that means getting there weeks beforehand. And that’s pretty much impossible and too expensive for top athletes.”

There needs to be far more understanding about how essential light is for people’s health and performance
Toine Schoutens - CEO of Chrono Eyewear

What about the programme you devised for the Dutch swimmers in Beijing?

“The general principle when you’re preparing is straightforward: if you’re flying east, you need to get up earlier each morning and go to bed earlier. You’ve got to do that gradually, in steps of an hour a day. So if you usually get up at 8 a.m., the next day you get up at 7 a.m., with the light, and then the day after at 6 a.m. and the next day at 5 a.m. and so on. Each time with thirty minutes of blue light. And in the evening, you have to go to bed earlier because it’s really important to make sure you still sleep the same number of hours. That way, you can gradually adjust your sleeping and waking patterns to an earlier or later moment. Usually you start preparing before you depart and then carry on for a while after you arrive so that your body adjusts properly. You can’t force yourself into adjusting and expect your body’s rhythms to change from one day to the next. But if you do it gradually, by no more than one or one and a half hours a day, your body can easily cope. When we were preparing for Beijing, we were still using light therapy equipment with fluorescent lamps and wake-up lights. But when Jacco Verhaeren was appointed national coach of the Australian swimming team, he called me again and said ‘It works great, but we always have to drag those big light boxes around the world. Haven’t you got anything else we could use?’ In 2007, a student and I made a prototype for a pair of glasses, basically a frame with LED lights in it. So we started working to develop that prototype further, and it eventually turned into the Propeaq glasses.”

What did developing the product entail?

“It started with a list of requirements that I drew up with those sorts of customers. I’ve been working on using light therapy to improve people’s moods and physical condition for the past thirty years and so, by now, I know the specifications that light glasses have to meet in terms of wave lengths, light intensity and timing. But there’s a lot of other knowledge involved and I have to make sure I keep up-to-date. That means reading a lot about developments in LED lights, including the drivers and power supplies that are needed, about using these lights in sport and other fields, and the settings for using them on board an aeroplane. I see that as the main way to stay two or three steps ahead of the competition. You also need to find partners who can do the engineering and production. Another important aspect is design. There are certainly other brands of light glasses on the market, but they all make you look like you come from a different planet. I wanted to make glasses that people would actually want to wear. So we had a whole series of designs made and then ultimately chose the best middle-of-the-road model. It had to look fashionable, but on the other hand you’ve also got to be able to go out and do your shopping wearing them without anyone staring at you. You don’t want to walk around in a blue haze.”

So far, we’ve mainly been discussing top athletes using the glasses, but that’s a small market. What about other markets?

“We’re certainly not focusing only on top athletes. We’ve designed these glasses for use in three principal areas. Firstly, to counter the effects of jetlag. It’s not only top athletes who can benefit from this, but also frequent flyers. Secondly, the glasses are also suitable for combatting the ‘winter blues’, which is when people feel a lack of energy and ‘get-up-and-go’ in the winter. By using a lot of blueish light in the morning, you encourage your body to produce more of the metabolic hormone cortisol, and that allows you to release more of the energy stored in your body. The third area is the one that interests me personally the most. Around 15 percent of the workers in the Netherlands don’t work nine to five, and that can have quite an impact. People working irregular hours over longer periods of time are less productive, make more mistakes and often have sleep- and digestion-related problems. In the longer term, for example, they’re more likely to become obese and develop type II diabetes. You can also combine aspects of these three markets and use the technology to temporarily boost people’s energy levels. Using the blueish light can have the same effect as an afternoon nap. Although it doesn’t work equally well for everyone, it generally makes people feel more energetic. People are made to be outside, not to dwell in caves. If you spend the whole day working outside, you won’t need a siesta. But people working indoors do because inside it’s fifty times darker than outside.”

Those are real consumer markets. And that presents more challenges than when you’re working only for top athletes. What stage is your business now at?

“We set up Chrono Eyewear, which is the company behind Propeaq, in early 2016. We found some private equity investors and now have seven employees, some working for us part-time or seconded. Being a small business with limited resources means you have to be creative. The bottleneck right now is marketing and sales. We’ve got distributors in various neighbouring countries, and things are going well there. Germany and Austria still need to get going properly, while we’re working on Russia, and were recently contacted by Japan. For 2017, we’re aiming to sell 2500 pairs of Propeaq glasses, and if growth continues, it’ll be two to four times as many in 2018.”

‘People working irregular hours over longer periods of time make more mistakes and often have sleep- and digestion-related problems’
Toine Schoutens - CEO of Chrono Eyewear

I can imagine there’s potential for considerably higher sales in the areas you mention.

“Yes, that’s certainly possible. We’ve only been operating for a year and a half and we’re really pleased with how things have gone so far, but the start is always difficult. One of the lessons we’ve learned, is that we shouldn’t focus too much on elite sport. Top athletes are great ambassadors for us, but the danger is that people then think ‘Glasses like that are for top athletes, not for me.’ That’s why we’re also focusing on recreational sport. Marathon runners, for example. They train for a whole year and pay thousands of euros to be optimally prepared for the New York marathon, but then turn up at the starting post with jetlag. And we’re also actively targeting other segments. We’re currently talking to an airline about contacting their frequent flyers, and have also carried out a few pilot studies with employees from organisations such as Holland Casino and the Royal Dutch Touring Club’s Emergency Centre (ANWB Alarmcentrale). In casinos, where you never see daylight, people work until late at night. Our tests there have produced very good results: staff using the glasses were far less tired and also found they slept better during the day. And it was exactly the same at the ANWB. Propeaq glasses aren’t a panacea for all ills, but older people in particular can clearly benefit from them. Ultimately, the idea is for employers to offer their staff Propeaq glasses as part of their compensation and benefits packages. That would be an attractive option for all organisations with night shifts or where critical activities are performed, such as in control rooms, on drilling platforms, in the armed forces, and in the underground or metro. There needs to be far more understanding about how essential light is for people’s health and performance, and that Propeaq glasses can play a part in this.”

You mentioned earlier that you hadn’t protected the Daymaker [a wake-up light; see box] and so your product was squeezed out of the market by cheaper copies. What about Propeaq?

“We’ve obviously registered the model. A lot of the knowledge in the Propeaq glasses – such as which part of the frequency spectrum is effective and safe, and the light intensity that suppresses melatonin the most – comes from academic research. Although I’ve published some of this knowledge myself, a lot of it is in the public domain and freely available. What we’ve protected is the knowledge of how the light ultimately falls on the retina. The Propeaq glasses contain a light conductor and reflectors to ensure the light is spread very evenly and falls on the retina in a way that achieves the maximum benefit without side effects. We’ve detailed it all in a series of patent applications. Another unique feature of the Propeaq glasses is that you can also use them with red lenses. You can do this if, for example, the user schedule shows you need to sleep until 10 a.m., but your flight departs at 8 a.m. You trick your body into thinking it’s still night. Sometimes you see athletes at Schiphol airport at 6 a.m. in the morning wearing their glasses with red lenses, and a cap on their heads, to keep out as much light as possible. I’m sure that at some point we’ll see the launch of copies of the Propeaq glasses. That’s when having a patent is important. But if you’re going to be commercially successful, it may be more important for you to be the first in the market, or the first to get FDA approval in the US, or to have the best athletes as your ambassadors.”

People are made to be outside, not to dwell in caves
Toine Schoutens - CEO of Chrono Eyewear

Do you also use Propeaq glasses?

“Only when I’m travelling. But recently we’ve also introduced Propeaq glasses with prescription lenses. I can’t see a thing without glasses, so I’m going to get my first Propeaq glasses with prescription lenses soon. As a businessman, saying that your own product works so fantastically for you always seems like a bad form of advertising. But luckily, I’ve got a genetically identical twin brother who flies to the US West Coast four times a year and really hates it. His body clock is always totally disrupted for a few days after he gets back. He was very sceptical about Propeaq glasses, but I gave him a pair and drew up a schedule for using them. I made him promise to do exactly what was stated in the schedule, and he managed to stick to the instructions. When I went to meet him at Schiphol Airport this year at 9 a.m. in the morning, he didn’t feel any jetlag at all. The next day, he felt a slight dip in the evening, but that was all. He’s not the type of person to tell me what he thinks I want to hear. He knows that’s no use to me. All he said was ‘After all those years of having to fight the jetlag, I’ve seen that these glasses work.' That’s all there is to it.”