Aneela Idnani Kumar recalls being ashamed when her husband discovered her picking her eyebrows in 2014, a yearslong compulsion that the accountant-turned-advertising agency marketer had hidden with makeup.

“I had no idea what it was and that it was a big deal,” recalled her husband, Sameer Kumar, a finance and technology professional.

Sameer took his wife’s hand and listened empathetically as she told him about the stress-induced destructive behavior.

“He supported me and encouraged me to see a psychologist,” recalled Aneela Kumar. “I will never forget when he took my hand. It was the impetus for doing something that would make me aware.”

When Sameer took Aneela’s hand that night in 2014, she had the idea for what today is the Keen bracelet, the first product of the Kumars’ company, HabitAware. The Keen is programmed to vibrate when it senses problematic behavior, whether the wearer is starting to pull hair, pluck eyebrows, bite nails, suck a thumb or otherwise.

HabitAware is a health-and-business venture that has blossomed into a technology that’s received kudos for its health benefits that already is benefiting thousands and shows promise as a commercial enterprise.

HabitAware has raised about $600,000 in equity capital from the founders, family, friends and Backstage Capital — which focuses on minority-owned businesses. It has sold more than 5,000 units over its website and otherwise this year, its first full year of production.

The Keen device is priced at $149.

HabitAware and the Kumars were the grand-prize winners of this fall’s Minnesota Cup entrepreneurial sweepstakes. They also are finalists in the MEDA $1 million competition for minority entrepreneurs that concludes in St. Paul in January. And they won a $300,000 Small Business Innovation Grant grant from the National Institute of Mental Health in August.

They have garnered positive reviews from health and tech-oriented publications for what appears to be an economical, behavior-changing solution for myriad destructive behaviors.

HabitAware’s Keen is very similar in style to a fitness tracker and uses gesture-detection technology to recognize when the wearer is engaging in behavior associated with poor mental health. For most people, biting their nails is just a bad habit, but for many with mental health issues, it’s a symptom of something much more serious. Moreover, if this helps people who pull hair, a condition known as trichotillomania, it also could help folks who pick their skin or binge eat to satisfy anxieties.

Douglas Woods, a research scientist at Marquette University, said earlier this year, after working with HabitAware, that the Keen could be a very good treatment for trichotillomania “and other body-focused repetitive behaviors.”

“The business of HabitAware, retraining the brain is huge,” said Steven Snyder, a psychologist, technology expert and veteran entrepreneur who also teaches at the University of Minnesota and mentored the Kumars during the several-month Minnesota Cup competition. “How do you get out of habits not in your best interest and retrain the brain with habits that are healthier? Aneela and Sameer figured out how to do that. They did it with one particular less-than-healthy habit that caused anxiety and self-esteem issues. The solution is so simple but so clever.

“I predict they will be successful. The question is what will be the magnitude. They have a lot of upside opportunity, backed up by supporters and psychologists helping patients. And it costs very little. I plan to invest in the company.”

The HabitAware founders are in the process of raising up to $2 million in their inaugural formal round of capital raising.

Sameer Kumar, 36, who relies on Aneela for ideas while he applies the strategy and calculations, believes the company could be self-supporting within a couple of years, generating several million dollars in annual revenue.

Sameer quit his job at Ameriprise in 2016 to map HabitAware’s strategy and participate with Aneela in the several-month HAX business accelerator program in Shenzhen, China, that led to a manufacturing contract.

Aneela Kumar, 37, a former CPA who grew up on Long Island, didn’t enjoy the work and earned a master’s degree in advertising. Working for a Minneapolis agency proved not to be her thing either. She could never beat the anxiety and stress that accompanied her jobs.

Her anxiety lessened and her eyebrows returned by 2015, as she and Kumar worked on HabitAware.

The enterprise has evolved from a part-time avocation to a full-time career for them both.

“This work fulfills me and allows me to work on something that will help everyday people,” said Aneela Kumar, also the mother of two young children. “We’re helping people to change their minds, alter behavior and improve their lives.”

That sounds like a pretty good ambition around which to build a business.

 

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.