Pitt spinoff on insomnia: Cooler heads do prevail

Studies at the University of Pittsburgh found that the brains of patients with insomnia were overactive. Pitt had a patent for a technique to reduce brain metabolic activity using cooling, and Dr. Eric Nofzinger saw the potential.

The burgeoning business of sleep is awakening.

Nationally, the global sleep services market is expected to reach $8.4 billion by the end of 2021, according to Persistence Market Research. And as more people are seeking new ways to bolster the quality of their shut-eye, local companies are developing products to address everything from insomnia and sleep apnea to keeping special needs kids from getting injured at night. Here are their stories.

When Dr. Eric Nofzinger was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he saw many people suffering from insomnia. Many were given the only treatment option available: hypnotic medications, better known as sleeping pills.

But, as Nofzinger studied patient after patient, he noted the side effects that came from the sleeping pills: the tendency for them to become habit-forming, problems with daytime sleepiness, memory loss, balance problems and occasionally sleepwalking behaviors.

“Insomnia is a very, very large problem, a very large public health concern,” he said. “Over half the individuals in the U.S. and worldwide have reported some troubles with difficulty sleeping on an occasional basis, and a clinical diagnosis can be made in over 20 percent of individuals in the general population. … There was a large need in the medical community for safer treatments for insomnia.”

Studies at Pitt found that the brains of patients with insomnia were overactive. Pitt had a patent for a technique to reduce brain metabolic activity using cooling, and Nofzinger saw the potential.

“The invention was applying this cooling to try to help calm down the minds of individuals with insomnia to get them into more restorative sleep and help them stay asleep across the nighttime,” he said.

Early clinical trials worked, and Nofzinger formed Cereve Inc. in 2008.

Nearly a decade later, that product has garnered millions of dollars in funding — it raised $38 million in its most recent fundraising round led by KKR – and received FDA approval. A pilot launch of the product is scheduled for around the end of the year.

Here’s how it works: Insomnia patients wear a pad over their foreheads. The pad is connected to a bedside unit that cools it, helping to cool the forehead and reduce activity in the front of the brain. This helps the patients to both fall asleep and remain so better.

The device is prescription only, and Cereve plans to target the product to sleep medicine physicians who can prescribe it to their patients.

“We really see this as a first-line therapy for insomnia,” said Nofzinger, who today is the company’s chief medical officer. “It’s a safe, alternative treatment to insomnia that previously hadn’t existed.”

Don Spence, CEO at Cereve, said the people at the company hope to change people’s lives with the new product.

“For an insomnia sufferer, it’s a very debilitating problem,” he said. “Finding solutions really does change people’s lives.”


Cereve Inc.
Based: Oakmont
Number of employees: Less than 20
Top officer: Don Spence, CEO, and Dr. Eric Nofzinger, founder and CMO
Product: Bedside device that cools the forehead to reduce insomnia