As an 18-year-old college student at Northwestern University, then-engineering student Jeff Kahn followed pretty much the typical college kid sleep schedule. He stayed up late, working on problems, but would have to be up early in the morning. Then, he’d come back from classes, and pass out. “I thought it was normal because that’s what everyone else was doing,” he tells Sleepopolis.
But unlike others, he became very aware that there had to be something “wrong.”
“Not only was I feeling really tired and groggy waking up, I felt depressed during the day,” he says. “I was anxious. I was paranoid…all my mental health was basically in a bad state, my physical health in a bad state. I was pessimistic about the world.” Looking back now, he recognizes that he was clinically sleep deprived, a definition he only uses now as an unlikely CEO and co-founder of Rise Science and RISE sleep app.
Before long, he started reaching out to professors to do independent research with him, in lieu of a class that wasn’t offered for his major — sleep science. 13 years later, he is on a mission to help others, “have a better day.” Here’s how.
Making Sleep “Cool” for Athletes, Then the World
Kahn says sleep health didn’t become cool until recently, but luckily it was just around the time he was starting to develop his app with co-founder Leon Sasson, who he met during college. But they didn’t jump right from studying sleep to a groundbreaking app. First, they delved into the potential for sleep health with elite athletes.
Kahn remembers Marvin Lewis, former Cincinnati Bengals coach, reaching out to him, as he was collaborating with Northwestern’s football program, to learn about the potential for improving performance through sleep.
“I think I was like a junior in college, and Marvin Lewis was on the phone, like, ‘Hey can you come out here and help us?’” So he headed to Cincinnati, talking to the team about sleep health, and their schedules. Before long he was also working with the Patriots, Alabama, Clemson, and others.
At first, selling a concept as simple as sleep health to pro athletes would “get him laughed out of the locker room.” But talk about performance, and everyone was all ears. Everyone wanted the upper hand that it seemed this new (but very old) phenomenon called sleep could provide on the field.
“You want to have more energy during practice, like when you get home after a long travel weekend, and you’re back with your family and kids, and you want to be the best dad you can be — that was meaningful to them,” Khan says.
But Kahn is all about the big picture, so helping athletes wasn’t nearly the end goal. “I looked at my co-founder and said, ‘Look, life’s short. I don’t know how much longer we have on this planet. But however long we do have, we should spend it really trying to make as much of an impact as we can.’”
The Birth of Rise Science
With the support of the investor behind Fitbit and Peloton, the product was launched at the end of 2020. Kahn takes customer feedback seriously, reading both glowing and critical reviews, to learn all he can from each of them. Now, a few years later, close to 100,000 users are tracking their sleep on Rise worldwide.
First, users take a 3-minute onboarding quiz to understand their sleep needs, then the app helps people understand multiple sleep data points.
“We’re going to tell them their sleep debt, what their circadian rhythm is (the best time to be sleeping or waking up), and help them set up the right routine,” he says. “We’re going to set up their smart alarm, helping them wake up at the right times…and give them a set of habits that they can set up: what their eating routine should look like, what their morning routine should look like, when to stop drinking coffee, and we’ll even integrate that into their calendar so they know when their peak times are to do their most important work and when to do other work that’s less important, and go take a walk outside or do meditation.”
He learns from any customers who will give feedback, from 18-year-olds in war-torn Ukraine, to 60-year-old women in Ghana using the product, he says. Making the app work for people with “very different needs” is their goal. “As we basically screw up and people tell us what didn’t work for them, that helps us get better.”
One user wrote from Romania recently: “One of the few very helpful apps out there. This is one of the few apps out there that are really helpful to having a better life. It helps you maintain a routine, gives you insights about your sleep and energy with very nice explanations of behaviors you might have during the day. The only question I have is what’s wrong with the subscription plans? Why is there no monthly subscription?”
The app can also communicate with wearables, such as a FitBit or Apple Watch, or even just your phone, to determine just how much sleep you need. Those without a wearable can track sleep using phone motion — from their nightstand. “We’ll actually use a machine learning algorithm to figure out what sounds are being made, not actually recording on the microphone but identifying the sounds, like coughing or sheet rustling,” Kahn notes.
The app offers a free 7-day trial, and a 30-day paid trial, and after that, the cost is $60 per year.
The Must-Try Sleep Tips He’s Learned Along the Way
These decades of sleep knowledge have translated into some solid sleep skills that Kahn readily shares with others. As a father to two young kids, he’s not immune from sleep debt, which he tracks every day. He knows the specifics of how a nighttime waking with his daughter might inform his habits the next day. “Should I get more sleep tonight? Should I watch another show?” The data guides his next choices, along with the below practices he recommends.
Warmth and Darkness Before Bed
Kahn takes a hot shower, bath, or uses his sauna. He does this in fully dim, black or red light, with blue light-blocking glasses. In college, he’d walk around with a candle at 9 p.m. and shower by candlelight. “You’d be surprised how much sleepier you feel,” he says. He then gives his body a chance to cool back down from the warmth of his activities, spacing out the showers from bedtime by a half hour.
Block Out Noise and Light
It might be hard to disrupt Kahn’s sleep — just ask his wife, who he jokes has to smack him when it’s time to help with the kids. That’s because he sleeps in a cool, quiet, dark room with an eye mask and noise canceling ear plugs.
Head Outside First Thing in the Morning
Upon waking, he and his 7-month-old son head outside for a walk as soon as possible, signaling to his circadian rhythm that it’s a new day. He says this also is linked to a stronger melatonin release that night.
Limit Caffeine to a Specific Time Frame
Kahn looks to his app to help him cut off his love for coffee, which he wraps up at around 11:30 a.m., switching to decaf. Don’t knock it till you’ve experimented — he says there are some seriously good decaf coffees out there.
Apply the Same to Your Kids
Kahn is proud to be that parent, who will leave a function early if it means keeping up with his kid’s sleep routine. They keep the lights low before bed for the kids too, and believe in sleep training to optimize their sleep health as early as possible.
Don’t Skip a Chance to Power Nap
A 20-minute nap can be powerful, Khan says, pointing out it’s the cognitive equivalent to multiple cups of coffee. “It’s a tool if you’re carrying quite a bit of sleep debt.”
Kahn’s team doesn’t plan on stopping til they’ve helped as many people have the best nights – and therefore, best days – possible.