Ariel Garten doesn’t require any direction when a newspaper photographer visits her downtown office to shoot her picture.
Garten is the 36-year-old Torontonian who co-founded InteraXon, which produces the Muse headband, a consumer device designed to help people meditate and attain a calmer headspace. During the photo session, Garten exudes confidence and poise, knowing how to position her face. She seems hyper-aware of her appearance and how she wants to be presented in public, perhaps a reflection of her background in fashion design.
After all, Muse is part of the explosion in “wearable tech” devices used to improve fitness — in this case, brain fitness.
Wearable tech is one of the fastest-growing categories at Best Buy Canada, according to Elliott Chun, a company spokesperson. Products include the Fitbit, Jawbone and Microsoft’s Band 2, three fitness and activity trackers, as well as the Apple Watch.
Muse also ties in to the mindfulness movement, in which people meditate or undergo therapy to achieve Zen-like, live-in-the-moment states of calm.
Several big names have jumped on the Muse train. Actor Ashton Kutcher, Indigo CEO Heather Reisman and Chade-Meng Tan, formerly of Google, have all invested. The $300 device racked up $3.5 million in sales in the last six months of last year, and it’s sold in 68 countries.
Born and raised in Toronto, Garten — who as InteraXon’s “chief evangelist officer” is the main face of Muse — has a wide-ranging background that encompasses neuroscience, a psychotherapy practice and fashion design.
The combination seems to have worked. Recognizing that her business skills place her in a select group of “high-potential” female entrepreneurs in Canada and the U.S., Ernst & Young recently named Garten to the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women Program’s class of 2015, a North American executive education program launched in 2008.
The program identifies female business owners to be mentored and given access to resources to help them grow their businesses, obtain capital and develop networks. She is one of four Canadian women to be named.
InteraXon, which launched in 2007, gained $300,000 in startup money from the Indiegogo crowdfunding website. In addition, FF Venture Capital, a New York firm, provided $500,000 in seed money in 2012.
The company currently has 45 employees. The Muse headband, its sole product at the moment, is made in China.
The idea for the Muse headband grew from collaborative work Garten did in 2002 and 2003 with Steve Mann, a computing engineer at the University of Toronto. He had a primitive brain-computer interface system he’d built at MIT in the 1990s.
While she was running a clothing store, Garten and Mann started to work together in his home laboratory, “creating concerts where you could make music with your mind,” she says.
That’s also where she met Chris Aimone, an InteraXon co-founder. Aimone, who has a master’s degree in computer engineering, was a student under Mann at the time.
“At some point in this adventure I was looking for a way to bring neuroscience tools to the masses,” Garten recalls. “I went back to the original technology that I’d been working with in Steve’s lab, where we were interacting directly with the world with our minds and hearing what our brains sound like.”
Aimone and Garten later teamed up with InteraXon’s other co-founder, Trevor Coleman — who has expertise in promotions and marketing — and they landed a contract for their first project in 2009. In what the team called the world’s largest “thought-controlled computing installation,” thousands of members of the public at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 put on headsets developed by InteraXon that enabled them to light up the CN Tower, Niagara Falls and the Parliament buildings.
The headsets measured the brain’s electrical signals and sent out waves received by a computer linked to lighting systems for the three landmarks thousands of kilometres away.
After some retooling, the team would develop the Muse, which came to market in the fall of 2014 and is now carried by Best Buy.
Muse is getting heavy attention from more than 100 research and scientific institutions, including the Mayo Clinic. Researchers there are investigating the use of Muse to decrease the stress of breast cancer patients awaiting surgery.
Muse is being used as a tool elsewhere in work related to post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, anxiety and pain management.
Science and art in her DNA
Not many 17-year-olds perform DNA analysis while developing a fashion line.
“My entire life I’ve done art and science simultaneously,” Garten says. “This has always been the dichotomy of my life.
She is the daughter of two accomplished parents — her mother is well-known artist Vivian Reiss, and her father is Irving Garten, who made his name investing in real estate and restoring historic properties. (In 1998 the Star carried a short story that said there are two kinds of Torontonians: those who get invited to Reiss and Garten’s parties, and those who only read about them.)
Ariel Garten’s story is as much about science and technology as it is about style and self-awareness.
When she graduated from Grade 12 at Toronto’s Northern Secondary School, Garten says, she was proficient in DNA analysis and synthesis, having gone through the institution’s biotechnology program.
That enabled her to work as a teenager in a lab at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, a leading biomedical research centre at Mount Sinai Hospital, where Garten dealt with embryonic stem cells.
At the same time she established a line of what she calls “edgy” clothing that she sold to stores on Queen St. W. and in New York.
Garten graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a degree in biology and psychology with a neuroscience designation, and that year opened a clothing store on College St. called Flavour Hall.
Revenues weren’t huge, she says, but she wasn’t losing money either. She was getting ample media coverage and was a staple in the city’s annual Fashion Week events.
Garten says she inherited her creative bent from her mom. In an email, Reiss says that as a mother — she also has a son, Joel Garten, now 34 — she let her children choose their own direction in life. “I didn’t send my children to nursery school or junior kindergarten. I felt they were too young to be regimented, so instead I let them create their own paths, which is exactly what Ariel has done.
“As a child, Ariel would watch me paint: a painting begins on a blank canvas and then a whole world of imagination comes alive on that canvas. I always told Ariel she could do the same — if she dreamed of something, it could become tangible …
“Ariel was bold, mature, artistic and grasped concepts quickly. Her career path doesn’t surprise me in the least.”
Garten is also driven by a desire to make a difference, says Coleman, the InteraXon co-founder. She was “making sure that we were building an organization and a product that would contribute positively in the world, and improve people’s everyday lives.”
Garten is four months pregnant with her first child. She’s married to animator and game developer Chris de Castro, 36, who recently created a video game based on Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Garten says her goal is to help people reach a state of “glorious calm” with Muse, something that could be invaluable for her, too, in the months ahead.
“My own mission is to teach people that that little voice in your head, the one that makes you feel you’re not good enough, that voice that takes us away from the beautiful, peaceful lives we could be living — my mission is to help people learn to dialogue with that voice and quiet it when you don’t need it.”
Muse you can use
• Catching the brain’s waves
EEG sensors in the headband measure the electrical activity of the brain. A free downloadable app compatible with an iPhone or Android device connects to the headband. A recorded voice on the app guides users through meditation. The sound of wind and waves from the app becomes louder the less relaxed you are. Chirping bird sounds reward you for reaching a calm state, and there are scores that rate your overall calmness during sessions.
• What would Elvis do?
Retired Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko uses Muse. “When you’re doing meditation, there are still times you get distracted because you’re trying to find a place where it’s quiet, to not focus on anything and control your mind,” the 43-year-old says from Virginia, where he is skating professionally in a show. “This (device) helps with trying to zone in and (find) that sweet spot …” Stojko is in talks with InteraXon about a possible promotional agreement.
• Muse in research
Research institutions are turning to Muse for data on brain activity. In a report released this summer, Baycrest Health Sciences, along with the University of Toronto and industry partners, described a large art-science display at Toronto’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in 2013 based on electrical brain signals from 500 adults who wore Muse. The study’s authors say the experiment allowed researchers to study brains in a “social and multi-sensory environment,” which traditional laboratories studying the cognitive functions of one person can’t do.
Mindful of the facts
• What is mindfulness?
Psychology Today describes mindfulness as a state of active, open attention to the present. It allows you to perceive your thoughts and emotions from a distance, not feeling good or bad about them but neutral. It’s based on Buddhist principles and took off in the 1970s. Mindfulness-related meditation and therapy techniques have spread to schools, businesses and hospitals.
• Mindfulness studies
A major 2011 study by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness meditation had positive impacts on the human brain. The study obtained MRI images of the brains of 16 healthy individuals unfamiliar with meditation. Those people then participated in an eight-week meditation program. Their grey matter was compared to that of a control group. Brain analysis suggested that meditation is tied to changes in the concentration of grey matter in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, emotional control, self-examination and gaining perspective.
• The downside
While studies suggest a strong connection between mindfulness and a reduction in stress and depression, experts warn of potential risks. One side-effect, though rare, is “depersonalization,” an extreme sense of being outside oneself. Traumatic memories can also be triggered, experts warn. And with the booming popularity of mindfulness comes concern that those teaching it may be unqualified or underqualified.