A series of interviews with pioneers bringing the world of wellness and technology to make meaningful change.
Miri Polachek is the CEO of Joy Ventures, the start-up studio building, funding and supporting companies developing consumer products for wellbeing. Miri joined Joy Ventures as CEO in 2018, bringing with her an extensive background in health and finance. Prior to Joy Ventures, Miri amassed a decade of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, working in financial management at Teva Pharmaceuticals and Pfizer and serving as VP Finance at healthcare services firm IntegraMed. She co-founded and served as the Executive Director of Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), a non-profit organization envisioned by former Israeli President Shimon Peres that accelerated brain-related innovation and positioned Israel as a leading global braintech hub. Miri holds a BA in Economics and Mathematics and an MA in Health Economics from Boston University, as well as an MBA from New York University Stern School of Business.
Amitha: I’m so interested in what brought you into this field, and what you think is on the horizon in terms of the intersection of well-being and tech. Can we reverse some of this damage that we've seen from technology? Is it about investing in companies that are focused on tackling this issue?
Miri:I've always been very passionate about health and health care. My mom is a neuroscientist, and my dad is an engineer and high-tech entrepreneur, so, science, technology and entrepreneurship were always conversations at the kitchen table. While I actually studied economics and finance, I found myself working in the healthcare industry because I was always very passionate about improving people's lives. I initially found myself in the pharmaceutical industry and then worked in various financial management roles in a few large global corporations. But over the years, mental health and brain health became a very strong passion of mine, in part because of having this strong neuroscience presence at home and having worked on product teams at both Teva and at Pfizer, but also because of having a brother living with a mental illness.
When I moved back to Israel 10 years ago, I jumped into the start-up ecosystem, and established and led a non-profit organization called Israel Brain Technologies, an initiative whose mission was to position Israel as a leading neuroscience innovation hub, specifically by commercializing Israel’s brain-related innovation. There, I helped run an accelerator focused on brain technology start-ups, and a very successful international conference that brought together the entire ecosystem of researchers clinicians, entrepreneurs, and investors. Working there was an amazing privilege, and several start-ups that went through the program have advanced in their development and some are already succeeding in the market.
Then about three years ago, Joy Ventures approached me to join them. I was already familiar with Joy, having been part of the same community interested in innovation in neuroscience and what Joy was calling “neuro wellness” at the time. Joy Ventures’ cared about understanding the healthy brain better in order to understand how we deal with stress and how we can improve our emotional wellbeing.
Amitha: I was really intrigued by Joy’s vision, because it takes an approach of looking at the science or innovating effective solutions that are not simply passing trends or gimmicks.
Miri: The word “wellbeing” is really something that we at Joy Ventures want to back up with technology that works, that makes a meaningful change in people’s lives, and that is enjoyable to use. Many wellbeing products create a nice experience, but the question is whether they actually create some kind of a change for the user. This could mean helping them relax or helping them sleep better, etc. This driving factor was what brought me to Joy in early 2018. I was first and foremost intrigued by the vision, which was to build a portfolio of companies that would help people feel good. At the time (several years ago) however, this sector was still very young, so the challenge was how to actually find companies that match our vision. At the time, we were looking primarily in Israel and there weren't that many companies back then, even worldwide, that fit our mission.
Some of the companies that are now unicorns were just starting out in 2018 and hadn't yet proven themselves in the market. There were a few companies that were starting to become household names. The Joy model is very much about incubating new companies, which means finding companies very early on and helping them develop their product concept, validate their ideas with users, and then gradually go to market. We also work to create awareness and community around innovation in this space.
Over these last three years, Joy Ventures has evolved as an organization; we've expanded our scope. While we are based in Israel, we invest globally. In fact, over the last year, we made our first investments both in the United States and in Europe. We just recently invested in a company based in Boston and founded by MIT researchers called Embr Labs, who created a thermal regulation wrist wearable that helps people adjust their body temperature sensation.
Amitha: It’s a form of biofeedback?
Miri: Yes. The wristband allows you to better regulate your temperature in terms of hotter or colder. In the future, Embr Labs also plans to enable a sensing or a closed loop capability. The wristband can help with sleep and is currently primarily being used to help “primetime women” in the menopausal stage, in which they are experiencing hot flashes. We also recently invested in a UK-based company called Empathic Technologies that created Doppel, another wrist wearable that helps to generate calm through haptic technology involving vibrations to your peripheral nerves. These vibrations, when at a high frequency, imitate your heartbeat, so it can cause the brain to either become more stimulated or calmer.
We're now also taking a much broader look at wellbeing, interpreting that word very broadly in order to pursue technologies or products that create some kind of meaningful change for the user through a delightful usage experience. This includes emotional wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and social wellbeing, which is one of our main focuses in 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic. We expect that social wellbeing will be one of the main issues this year compared to the past as loneliness and social isolation continue.
Amitha: That's an interesting topic because social media, to a degree, has been really helpful for some people during this pandemic to feel more connected, but we also know that there are issues with social media too and there's almost like an inverted U-curve or something: it’s dose dependent perhaps?
Miri: Definitely, and I think it's both dose and content dependent. We recently invested in a very exciting company that created a different kind of social network focused on rewarding those who are helpful rather than those who are popular.
Amitha: Do you think that these sort of apps that focus on well-being online can translate to offline social behavior? Specifically, in terms of creating connections offline. Yeah, so I guess what I'm thinking of is, for example, the recent riots in the US, on January 6th. There was a lot of talk about how it was planned online. So, it has me wondering if, since toxicity can build online, which translates offline, can the opposite be true? Can empathy and understanding those different from us, if built online, translate offline?
Miri: Yes, I would agree that if we create good online, it would reinforce positive behaviors offline. This is why, when we look for future investments, we also look for products that combine the physical and digital worlds, especially in terms of how they facilitate contact with another person. For example, the startup Noom is a weight loss program that includes both a digital aspect via an app as well as a personal interaction with a real group coach. This real-life interaction creates a more natural relationship and a higher level of accountability.
Amitha: So what do you think are the big trends as it relates to well-being and tech? You wrote an article in Fortune that came out in August about emotion-tracking apps. Was there anything you would add to that?
Miri: I think that a major trend in 2021 will be technology that creates connections – like products that help us stay in touch with our loved ones and our colleagues remotely, and anything that helps people create and maintain relationships on a more significant and deeper level. We recently announced which is you know helping grandchildren and grandparents, you know, connect and maintain their relationships, better. So I think that's the whole sort of connectivity from IQ, you know, maintaining these deeper relationships is going to be.
We're already seeing a lot of this technology take off. There has been a lot of traction around corporate wellbeing and solutions designed specifically for the workplace, that help maintain corporate culture and connections in a remote environment. If in the past employers’ premiums or health insurance grants were reduced because they’ve got an office gym, now this trend is expanding and offering a lot more through the corporate environment.
Amitha: Just at the start of the pandemic, around March or April 2020, I did a little interview series for Mind Body Green, interviewing different sort of public figures around what they were doing for their well-being. Almost everyone talked about routines, which I think is what you're getting at: these little moments in the day when you can sort of build in something to keep your routine that keeps you well and keeps anxiety at bay. I mean, again this was very early in the pandemic but it was interesting to hear that people were already understanding that the only way that we can sort of get through this is if we have a good sense of what our days are going to look like. This fits into well-being and all of that sort of thing. What do you think is one of the biggest challenges or barriers to this marriage between tech and well-being like?
Miri: I think the biggest challenge is the burden the tech developers and creators face in gaining the trust of their customers by proving that the products they created have a studied and tested impact. Some of these companies, especially those that are bringing in new approaches and new technologies, need to educate the market a bit before gain consumers’ trust.
Amitha: I wanted to end with a two-part question. First, how are you doing with all of this especially someone in the well-being space? Maybe you're doing better than most? And then the second part is: what are things that you build in personally in your day to keep you well during this time.
Miri: Thanks for asking. One thing that I always say about myself is that I was blessed with natural resilience. From a young age, I developed some strong coping mechanisms that have helped me handle stress and uncertainty, including during this challenging time, and I'm very grateful for that. There have of course been times during this past year that were really scary, and primarily I've been worried about my children. I think that depending on their age, not all children have those kinds of necessary tools to deal with all these changes yet. I have three kids who are extremely social, and it hasn't been easy to be separated from their friends so constantly. But thankfully, my whole family has been healthy. I think if we can teach our kids tools to cope with stress in different ways, they are much better off. Joy Ventures as an organization has luckily also been able to continue operating, though remotely. We feel blessed to be healthy and employed, and so I don't think we can ask for much more.
What I do for my own well being is highly conventional. I exercise, meditate, and try to spend a lot of time outdoors in nature. We live near the sea, so I like to spend a lot of time walking on the beach and sailing. We also have a lot of parks in Tel Aviv and I like to be around the greenery. I'm also lucky that I sleep well and I do make sure to get enough sleep.