Alumni Spotlight | Spring 2023

Alum’s invention is a sight for sore eyes

Two hosts of the CBC Dragon's Den TV show lie on a bed wearing Umay Rest devices

As you read these words, how do your eyes feel? Are they tired, dry, or itchy?

If you're one of the millions of North Americans suffering from digital eyestrain, there may be a solution for you in the form of Umay REST, a new eye-relief device developed by Lakehead alum Ali Habib and his sister Dr. Sharmin Habib.

Umay REST uses a combination of cold and warmth, along with subtle vibrations and thermal waves, to soothe sore eyes and offer a reflective, meditative experience.

"Our bodies and minds are interconnected," Ali says, "and as someone who has personally struggled with mental health challenges in the past, I recognize the importance of taking a holistic approach to wellness."Ali Habib leans against a whiteboard scribbled with notes

With $650,000 in sales in its first six months, Umay REST has proven to be a runaway success.

Ali earned a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) and an Engineering Diploma (Mechanical) at Lakehead. Several years later, he completed an MBA at Erasmus University in the Netherlands because of its thriving startup ecosystem and strong reputation for innovation.

"After finishing my MBA," Ali says, "I envisioned founding my own tech startup or working in a leadership role at a high-growth company."

Ali (EngDp'02/BEng'03) says that the first Umay REST prototype looked nothing like the production version seen above. "Despite the challenges, we remained committed to our vision, and the end result is a product that changed the way people think and feel about rest."

When he returned home to Edmonton suffering from dry, itchy eyes after spending years in front of a computer screen, however, things took a different turn. He visited his optometrist sister, Sharmin, who diagnosed him with chronic dry eye—known as meibomian gland dysfunction.

"At the time, the only solution she could offer me was a warm compress," Ali says.

Placing a warm,wet cloth over his eyes was inconvenient.

"It cooled too quickly and water dripped all over my face and pillow."

This was when he decided to create something that would be simple to use and would perform better than an ordinary compress.

"We started the journey of exploration—not only to design a device that improved patient compliance for dry-eye relief, but one that took into account the need we all have for a break in our days, to rest our minds and have a moment of calm," he says.

Bringing their device to market took several years, but he and his sister were able to overcome daunting obstacles and achieve their goal of creating an intuitive, simple, and beautiful device.

"Collaborating with Sharmin was a unique and fulfilling experience that I wouldn't trade for anything."

The result is Umay REST, a device that can be used for warm sessions in the evenings to help relax the eyes and mind, or for cooling sessions in the mornings to help wake up with fresh natural tears.

Sharmin and Ali Habib sit side by side on a staircaseAli, seen here with Sharmin, practices Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Vipassana (a Buddhist meditation technique). "Both practices have helped me cultivate greater mental clarity, emotional stability, and well-being." This prompted him to incorporate meditative elements into Umay REST.

Ali and his sister's success with Umay REST was further solidified when they appeared on the CBC's Dragon's Den television show in 2022, which you can watch on the CBC Gem app—it's the first episode of the newest season.

"It was exciting, nerve-wracking, and, overall, a huge growth experience for us as founders and for the brand," Ali says.

He attributes much of his success to the education and experience he received at Lakehead. It provided him with hands-on experience, skills, and knowledge he used to design UMay REST.

His favourite Lakehead memories include the friends he made and the professors who encouraged him to think outside the box– including building an 'automatic page-turner for textbooks' from old VCR parts with classmate Keith Ellwood.

Umay REST device with black carrying case

Umay REST is available at more than 75 optometry clinics in North America and online through the Umay website. If you'd like to purchase the device, have your optometrist complete an exam for dry eye and provide a letter indicating its medical necessity.

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