Earbuds from Finland: They light up your brain

November 9, 2011

Five years ago, Nokia engineer Antti Aunio was trying to brighten up his flat to deal with seasonal affective disorder, known as winter depression and a common problem in northern Finland with its dark and long winters.

His childhood friend Juuso Nissila, a scientist who had studied the impact of lights on animals, had another suggestion: instead of getting new lamps that promise to lighten your mood, why not make a device that sends light straight to your brain?

That’s how Aunio quit Nokia and joined Nissila in starting up Valkee, which now sells earplugs which send bright lights to the brain through ear canals.

On Wednesday, Valkee and scientists from the University of Oulu presented results of two small clinical trials to a science conference in Budapest, saying the earplugs can effectively prevent and treat winter depression.

Around 15-20 percent of central Europeans suffer from the winter disorder. In Valkee’s hometown of Oulu in northern Finland, there is less than four hours of daylight during the depths of winter.

Valkee launched its bright-light headset in August 2010 and sold 6,000 of them in Finland over the following winter.

It is now aiming to grow sales of earplugs, which retail for 185 euros, by around 5-6 fold by the financial year ending in March 2012.

“This is a unique thing and there aren’t many unique things in the world,” Timo Ahopelto, chief executive of Valkee, told Reuters in an interview.

Valkee investors include Anssi Vanjoki, long-time No 2 executive at Nokia, and health technology investor Esther Dyson.

Ahopelto said he does not expect to see rival products on the market any time soon. Regulatory approval to sell the product as a medical device took around three years.

“It’s such a mad thing that I do not think we will see others in near future.”

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