Dr. Akshaya Shanmugam: the Revolution in Fighting Addictions Has Begun

Growing up in India, where access to medical treatment was often mission impossible, her personal experience with medical care had a massive impact on dr.Akshaya Shanmugam’s career choice. Her hard work made her become CEO of Lumme Labs, a scientist and an entrepreneur, but her ambition and vision put her on this year’s prestigious Forbes 30 under 30 list of innovators. Her company, Lumme Inc., has raised $1.7 million in non-dilutive fundingand has produced a device that will help people quit smoking! Dr. Shanmugam spends all of her time bringing cutting edge technology and behavioral psychology together to push the boundaries in treating addictions. She talks about her dedicated team, their efforts, and her extraordinary journey in an interview for Youth Time magazine.

Both your grandfather and grandmother died of very cruel diseases. Has this fact affected your decision to become a scientist and an expert in the field of Biomedical Engineering, developing technology that allows people to live healthier lives?

My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s, and I watched him suffer during the last phase of his life. There was nothing I or science could do to help him, because by the time he was diagnosed the disease had progressed. That certainly had a massive impact.

I grew up in India, where access to healthcare or visiting a doctor is a luxury for a majority of the population. Even in the U.S. this is true to some extent. I find it impossible to shrug my shoulders and accept this as a way of life. There is so much that technology can do to help with today’s healthcare problems such as cost, accessibility, and quality of care. Even the way we monitor our health has so much room for improvement. Counting on that one annual health check-up to assess health is such an inefficient solution. As a scientist, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, I feel a moral responsibility to fix these problems.   

Did your family support you throughout your education and career, and whose support was most precious to you?

I have been blessed with an extremely caring support system. My parents came from humble beginnings, and all the opportunities that I am able to explore today is because of the sacrifices that they selflessly made. My husband and his family are my biggest fans. I am so grateful to be surrounded by such wonderful people.   

Dr. Abhinav Parate and Dr. Akshaya Shanmugam at the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Program Awards Ceremony in Springfield, MA.

Who helped you the most in developing Lumme Labs, and what is its main vision?

Lumme’s vision is to change to way we monitor health and push the boundaries of how care is delivered. We believe that healthcare should be affordable, effective, and tailored to each patient. I am fortunate to work alongside a highly accomplished team that is extremely passionate about the work we do at Lumme. We have also immensely benefited from advisors, coaches, and well-wishers that share our vision to revolutionize healthcare.  

One of the key points of your job is developing health monitoring systems. Can you try explaining to us, simply, their mechanisms and how they work?

What we are developing at Lumme is a behavior change platform by combining cutting edge technology and behavioral psychology. Our platform uses data from wearable devices to detect hand gestures and classify them as smoking, eating, walking, etc. It then uses contextual information to predict when someone is most likely to indulge in smoking or binge eating. During these situations, it triggers interventional messages to encourage people to make smart and healthy choices. 

Lumme Labs has developed software for smokers who want to quit. It’s located in a wearable device that senses the smoker’s movements and predicts a likely relapse – then a notification tells them not to light up. Is notification really enough for stopping someone from lighting up? What has recent practise shown?

Yes! Our clinical trials show a 3x improvement when compared to existing smoking cessation services. Think of it this way – the notification is similar to the advice you get from a therapist. Instead of the therapist sharing a list of 20 things you can do to handle cravings, Lumme’s platform tailors the timing of that help and tells you exactly what you should do for the trigger you are about to experience in the next couple of minutes.

This innovative device has been created by combining behavioral psychology and wearable technology. Having in mind this fact, how many people were on the team while developing the device, and did you cooperate with psychologists during the process?

My colleague Abhinav Parate has a PhD in computer science, and what we are developing at Lumme is an extension of the research he conducted while he was a PhD student at UMass. Our behavioral platform is developed in collaboration with the Yale School of Medicine, where the director of the Yale Tobacco Treatment Clinic, Dr. Sherry McKee, and her team of scientists have closely worked with us to develop the best solution possible. Our other co-founder, Prof. Deepak Ganesan, also from UMass, is a renowned researcher and a pioneer in mobile health.    

Is this smart watch a commercially available product now, and if not, when will it be available to the masses? Will it be affordable?

Our programs will be accessible to the public from their employers. We will be launching pilots with organizations this quarter. The goal of developing this system is to make it affordable, accessible, and effective to everyone who needs it.

You are also working on developing devices that help in controlling eating disorders and alcoholism – when will they become available on the market?

The alcohol and diet platforms will be released in 2020.

Every new day is a challenge, in a way – what is your motto that helps you go through these challenges?

I believe that the work we do at Lumme can change the way addiction is treated and how we monitor our health. All the hurdles and challenges along the way just make the journey more interesting.

Photos:  Lokesh Subramany, HuffPost

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