A Conversation With Ben Rubin, Sleep and Consumer Health Expert

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BenRubin-Post.jpgIn 2003, Ben Rubin was a sleep-deprived junior at Brown University when he decided to start Zeo, a sleep management company that aims to help consumers improve the quality of their lives, with a couple of his friends. Now the chief technology officer, Rubin recently oversaw the launch of Sleep Management Mobile, an app that tracks REM and deep sleep among other factors to help users get the best sleep possible. Here, Rubin discusses why there's a misconception that most people are fat and unhealthy because they're lazy and unmotivated; how having easy access to a social graph via Facebook and other networking sites is going to shake up the health world; and how he started his company while still enrolled in college.

I start with the fundamental human angle of it: "I help people sleep." Second sentence qualifies this: "Started a company that helps people measure and manage their sleep."

It's not new, but resurgent: Consumers should be in control of and responsible for their own health. New technology is making this possible -- smartphones, social networks, cellular, sensors -- all this new tech is making that old idea much more possible.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

I'll call my expertise "consumer health." Here is what most people think is so that just ain't so: People are fat, unhealthy, and out of shape because they are lazy and unmotivated. Here is the truth: People are super-motivated to be healthy -- with health comes happiness, sex, wealth, etc. The problem is that everything in society is set up to make people fail -- the food we are presented with, sedentary jobs, chronic stress, over-connectedness, etc.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the health world?

Having easy access to a social graph via Facebook is going to shake up health. Instead of manually and laboriously picking out people who can help you make progress, remain accountable, etc., your social graph can automatically suggest and notify people who would actually care if you lost 10 pounds or ran that marathon. Powerful stuff.

What's a health trend that you wish would go away?

The trend: When building a new company or technology, we must get employers or insurers to pay for the product or service -- consumers won't do it. This is what should be the trend: Make a product that is easy and fun and changes people's lives -- and sell it direct to consumers.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

In the world of sleep there is a fringe of very cool but not mainstream stuff: lucid dreaming (control your dreams like in Inception), polyphasic sleep (sleep in 20-minute naps instead of at night), etc. Fascinating, but ultimately not useful for real people.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Polar, which brought heart rate to the consumer over 20 years ago -- amazing given the times. Tim Ferriss, because he has the guts to suggest we use personal science to find out what works for us. And Gary Wolf, founder of the Quantified Self movement. He brought us all together to make wonderful things happen.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Man, I considered law, management consulting, engineering -- pretty much everything was on the map, but I started my company while still in college, so I didn't get far before turning to entrepreneurship.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

A new find for me is Connect HQ for personal relationship management. It helps me keep in touch with the key people who will help drive my business forward.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Sound Of Silence," by Simon & Garfunkel. No idea why.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on health?

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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