Vancouver is a gloomy place in the winter. Short, dark days are punctuated by weeks of rainfall, and few have the inclination to get outside. Locals rarely get enough sunlight during the season, and that leads to poor vitamin D production.
Despite its name, vitamin D is not a vitamin but a hormone, and studies suggest that it likely plays a role in preventing broken bones, osteoporosis, depression, schizophrenia, aging, and cancer. Although individuals can increase their concentrations by eating oily fish, the body synthesizes the hormone itself more efficiently from the sun’s rays as they hit the skin. Because the country has such long winters, almost 60 percent of Canadians are deficient in vitamin D.
For Rick Hennessey, CEO of Washington-state-based company Solius, finding a solution to that issue was personal. A number of his family members suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—a form of cyclical depression—during the winter, which is associated with low levels of the hormone. After joining Solius as an investor in the company’s sunlight-based medical therapy for autoimmune issues, the serial entrepreneur soon stepped into the role of CEO. Together with the team of scientists, Hennessey oversaw the creation of the company’s flagship product: a walk-in booth that replicates the positive effects of standing in direct sunlight on a summer’s day.
“We’ve taken these nanospectrums of light, isolated them down, and eliminated the harmful rays that are responsible for skin cancer and aging, which are in the UVA range,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from his Bainbridge Island office. “We’ve built a special light that only does a certain target, and then we bend the light to reduce the energy and spread it back out. We started developing this science initially for autoimmune disease. But as we were developing it, we realized that the same spectrums of light that were producing the immune response were also in the peak area for optimally producing vitamin D.”
The Solius booth looks like a prop from a science-fiction movie. The two-and-a-half-metre-tall, glowing purple kiosk emits light from two walls all around the individual, and the fourth is a lockable door. Clients walk inside, stand on the two footprints on the floor, and face a touchscreen TV. The voiceover invites users to stay in the booth for two to six minutes, which is enough to let them synthesize the vitamin D they need.
Hennessey believes that the booth provides a better alternative to taking vitamin D pills, which, he says, are questionable in their effectiveness.
“Supplements aren’t solving the problem, and can be very controversial,” he says. “The reason is that they don’t go through a rigorous regulatory process, and they don’t bind correctly to proteins. If you take something that’s made from an extract from fish organs, it might get your D up, but it’s not offering the same benefits to you as if you produced vitamin D yourself from light. You don’t know if you have too much or too little, because you’re just jamming this stuff into your bloodstream. With light, there’s this very elegant regulatory process so you can’t overdose. It just makes as much as you need, and then it stops. That’s one of the benefits of our machine.”
Hennessey launched the service in Vancouver in September with two booths, one at the BioPro Biologics Pharmacy on West Broadway and the second at the Wellness Garage in White Rock. Over the next year, the company plans to expand considerably in the city.
“We are going to put a couple more in [Vancouver] in January,” he says. “We have a long list of groups that want our machines [for] things like sports medicine, where they really understand the correlation between vitamin D and bone and muscle health. It’s also very helpful for autoimmune disease, which often comes with fat-malabsorption conditions. Those conditions need a lot of vitamin D because it helps reduce the flare-ups. I imagine we’ll end up putting 20 or so into Vancouver in the next 12 months.”
Kate Wilson is the technology editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays