For now, this is the stuff of dreams. What’s real is that one day in 2019, a patient stuck a bud in each ear, fell asleep, and amazed the scientists at NextSense – sending out brainwaves that showed exactly how this product could save a person’s life.
Jonathan Berent is the CEO of NextSense. One evening, the 48-year-old spoke like a podcast at 1.5 speed while we waited for our entrees on the patio of an Italian restaurant in Mountain View, California. The subject of his filibuster was how he got into brain health. His obsession wasn’t with ears or wellness; it was sleep.
Raised by his single mother and a gang of relatives in Seymour, Indiana — the small town John Mellencamp sings about — Berent said he struggled to fit in and often struggled at school. He threw himself into his hobbies, including writing small games that could fit in Commodore 64 cartridges. As a teenager, he stumbled across a book about lucid dreaming, a semi-conscious middle ground in which dreamers have some level of control over their visions. Written by Stephen LaBerge, the top expert in the field, the book made Berent addictive to the slumbering mind. “The laws of physics don’t apply and the laws of society don’t apply,” Berent says of sleep. At 18 he made his first journal entry as part of what has become a lifelong project of documenting his dreams.
Berent made it to Stanford, where he began studying computer science, only to hold onto a degree in an introductory course. He switched to philosophy because he thought he would catch up with his fellow geeks later in the workplace. However, a philosophy major is not a gateway to great jobs in Silicon Valley. After some searching, Berent found an entry-level position at Sun Microsystems in a backward contract reviewing department.
By 2011 he had found his way to Google where he joined a sales team supporting AdWords (now Google Ads). He was good at it. He led a large team and worked in an office he decorated like a spa retreat with a yoga mat and a “library of wisdom” of being here now. (“I don’t think there was any incense burning there, but I remember it being,” says one visitor.) Meanwhile, he experimented with polyphasic sleep — going to bed around 10 p.m. and waking up three or four hours later and doing the whole thing Nap more than 20 minutes a day.
It wasn’t long before he crossed paths with another sleep obsessive at another AdWords office. Joe Owens has a PhD in Neuroscience with a focus on sleep and circadian rhythms. Their first conversation was a marathon Google Meet session. Berent described his sleep-hacking adventures: As a morning person, he explained, his naps effectively gave him multiple fresh starts in which to read vigorously about neuroscience, consume novels, and practice drums. Owens was impressed. “I’ve never met anyone who, personally, sleeps that hard,” he says. Both ended up guest lecturers on a famous Stanford course on the science of sleep, and soon the two men were proposing ideas for products that could improve sleep. LaBerge, the lucid dreaming expert, had become a mentor, and he shared with Berent a research paper in which playing a snooze sound enhanced the slow waves that correspond to deeper sleep. Berent thought that a product built on this finding could allow people to recover more efficiently – by compressing eight hours of sleep into six.
In April 2016, Google announced it would launch an incubator called Area 120, its handcrafted version of Y Combinator. Berent and Owens applied and were turned down, but they were referred to X, Alphabet’s “Moonshot” division, which takes on riskier, longer-term projects than Area 120. Time. Berent remained in the ads department, but dedicated some of his time to the project.