Device that notifies wearer of compulsive behaviors wins U of M startup prize

The grand prize winner in this year's MN Cup is a Minneapolis company that makes a device to help curb compulsive behaviors.

The University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management awarded the $50,000 grand prize to HabitAware, which makes the Keen, an awareness tracker.

Aneela Idnani Kumar leads the startup company and designed the tracker, which is worn like a wristwatch.

Kumar told MPR's Tom Crann that her invention was born of personal necessity.

"I suffer from hair pulling disorder," Kumar said. It's a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety. For me, it started in my early teens, and it's something I hid for a very long time because of the shame associated with it."

Kumar said a user programs the Keen with the habitual gestures that they hope to stop, such as skin picking or eyebrow pulling. When the device senses those gestures, it vibrates.

She advises people who suffer from an inability to control impulses, a disorder known as trichotillomania, to use the Keen in conjunction with therapy.

"You have to acknowledge and try to figure out: 'Why am I doing these behaviors? What is that trigger?' You can then learn to adapt and experiment. It's very helpful to have a treatment professional help you go through that process," she said.

Kumar founded the company in 2016 along with her husband, Sameer Kumar, and their friends Kirk Klobe and John Pritchard.

The Carlson school began the MN Cup in 2005 to support emerging entrepreneurs.

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