Aura Health: Mindfulness Meets Machine LearningBy Abhinav Bhat
As the meditation and mindfulness movement draws millions each year, the volume of mindfulness-related digital content has grown rapidly as well. Aura Health’s intuitive, emotion-based search engine lets users navigate that growing library while its sophisticated machine-learning algorithms adapt to the user’s specific needs over time. I sat down with one of Aura’s founders, Steve Lee, to understand Aura Health a little better.
Making Meditation Mainstream
Meditation in America has existed in some form since at least the 1970s – but as modern life grew increasingly hectic and attitudes toward emotional well-being evolved, demand for a simple, healthy way to unwind grew with it. By 2012, 9.5% of American adults practiced meditation; by 2017, that number had grown to 14.3%. As the curious and the stressed began to pick up the practice, the need for an accessible way to learn how meditate correctly began to develop. Meditation teachers would be the best options, but were prohibitively expensive, while other apps available offered cookie-cutter meditations regardless of what users needed at the time. Brothers Steve and Daniel Lee noticed that gap back in 2017 and got together to form Aura Health.
Steve is a veteran of the healthcare industry with experience in entrepreneurship and bringing innovative products to market. This would, however, be Steve’s first venture in the technology space – and the stakes were higher still for Daniel, who had interrupted his Bachelors at UC Santa Barbara to work on Aura full time. The venture was personal for the brothers as well – a member of their family suffered from mental illness and the experience would go on to inform Aura’s mission of making mental wellness more accessible for everyone.
At first glance, however, it might not seem like meditation and mindfulness suffer from any accessibility issues – the overall “wellness” movement has been valued at over $3 trillion. Back in 2017, when Aura launched on the App Store, there were more than 1,300 competitors in the market. Most of these 1,300 apps would never get much traction but a select handful, led by Headspace and Calm, would begin to break away from the pack and distinguish themselves. Last year, Headspace reported 31 million users and a valuation of $250m. Calm recently became the world’s first mental health unicorn when it raised $88m in its second funding round. Their position at the top is always being challenged however; smaller competitors such as Insight Timer, MindBody, and Buddhify have each picked up small cohorts of loyal fans by offering variations on traditional mindfulness regimes. Mindbody, for example, combined exercise with mindfulness and meditation. Steve knows that for Aura to avoid that fate, it too needed a unique offering that would immediately set it apart from its peers.
“It was important to us that information about meditation was accessible to everyone. We want our users to feel empowered to explore emotional well being in whatever way that works best for them”
Steve Lee, CEO & Co-Founder, Aura Health
That distinction factor came in the form of an emotion-based search engine backed by a machine learning algorithm that learned from users’ choices and preferences. The emotion-based search shows users content based on their emotional state. Early market testing had shown Steve that, while people might not always know enough about meditation to know what they needed, they would be far more likely to know how they felt. With that information, Aura could then offer users curated content – licensed from top meditation experts and therapists – best suited to their emotional needs. The accessibility of the app was evident; by the end of 2017, Aura had picked up Apple’s ‘Best of 2017’ App Store award.
A Personal Assistant for Emotion
Aura was just getting started. Behind the scenes, the brothers weren’t just adding features – they were making Aura smarter as well. Machine learning algorithms ran over user data to understand what meditations best suited various moods and user types. Now in 2019, Aura has millions of daily users and a collection of rave reviews from both reviewers and users. It’s offering has expanded as well; adding narrated short stories, a gratitude journal, and life coaching session, in addition to more conventional options like soothing music and sounds of nature. The Aura Health team, which for almost 2 years consisted of just the two brothers and a tiny collection of remote developers, began to grow slowly as well. The Aura app is run on a subscription model, with users paying $100/year for access to over 1,000 different sessions from meditation experts. Users can also track their progress and emotional states over time and talk about those states on community forums.
It didn’t take long for Aura to begin to draw attention. Aura Health was accepted into Skydeck, a UC Berkeley-affiliated accelerator, as part of its 2017 spring cohort. Beyond connecting Aura to valuable advisors and resources, Steve credits Aura’s time at Skydeck with boosting the new company’s profile and credibility. Last year, Reach Capital and Cowboy Ventures led Aura Health’s seed round, collectively raising $2.7m for an undisclosed valuation. Steve stressed the importance in waiting to partner with the right investors that understand the company’s mission and ambitions.
“It was really important for us to work with mission-driven investors who understood where we wanted to take Aura”
Steve is proud of how far Aura has come, but he knows there is a lot more to do. For now, he intends to zoom in on product development and testing – Aura’s constantly improving algorithm has shown itself to be an integral part of its success – but longer term, he has far bigger ideas, including integrations with wearable devices. His competition is taking notice too – Headspace is getting into the AI space as well, albeit with an emphasis on voice based technologies. For now, Steve has more pragmatic focus in mind – building Aura into a platform for the best practitioners in the industry and ensuring anyone can get access to high quality content.