Music and health is a trend that is gathering pace. Not just in terms of fitness-tech and mindfulness, but also for deeper medical treatments and therapies.
In recent years, for example, we’ve written about Universal Music Group’s partnerships with startups MedRhythms (which uses music in the treatment of strokes, MS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) and Music Health (which focuses on dementia).
MediMusic, which uses music as “medicine to reduce anxiety and pain”, is part of the Abbey Road Red incubator; startups including Lucid, Spoke and Sona have emerged in recent years; and Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s other startup is health-tech firm Neko Health – albeit without a music angle… yet.
Then there’s Moonai. Founded in Barcelona in 2022, it has developed a mobile app that uses music to help women who are suffering from period pain.
Fresh from taking part in the Techstars Stockholm accelerator, the startup is preparing for its full launch later this year, although even in its initial pilot stage its app has been chosen as App Of The Day by Apple in several countries.
“We haven’t spent a penny on marketing in the last two years, but we just reached 17,500 users organically, with more than 25,000 downloads,” CEO Laura-June Clarke tells Music Ally.
“Women are using the app for two or three days a month, as you’d expect. The audience is between 25 and 35 years old, and our top countries have been Spain, the UK, Germany and eastern Europe, but in the last five months we have seen it spread to the US, Brazil, India, Vietnam and other countries. We’ve found a product/market fit: people are using it, they talk about it, and it works!”
It may sound strange to hear a founder stressing that their product works, but Clarke explains that Moonai has faced plenty of scepticism for its claim to be a “digital painkiller” for women with period pain.
The app offers a mixture of sounds, music and educational information, with the music taking the form of “ambient-drone soundscapes” created by a team of producers and neuroscientists.
“It’s supported by the science, and the people who are most sceptical about it before using the app tend to be our biggest ambassadors afterwards. It blows their minds! And then they post [on social media or in app store reviews] about that,” she says.
Focusing on women’s health, starting with period pain, has brought some other challenges to Moonai thus far, when talking to investors, employers (who may be one of its big sales targets) and the music industry alike.
A famous campaign by charity WaterAid called ‘If men had periods’ imagined how attitudes towards menstruation might be different in a world where, yes, men had periods. Getting funding for a period-pain relief app wasn’t mentioned, but it could certainly be added to the list.
“There is still a lot of frustration on my side when I see what’s being funded and what isn’t. Many people don’t really care that this affects 1.6 billion people on earth,” says Clarke, joking that she tackled this problem by “approaching it more from a masculine perspective and turning people into numbers”.
“It does have an impact if you say there are 1.6 billion people on earth who are ready to spend money!” she says, while noting that when Moonai has talked to employers about potential partnerships, responses have varied.
“There are companies who promote female wellbeing at work, and talk about it a lot on social media, but then they told me directly that this [menstrual pain] is not a priority for them,” says Clarke.
“This might be true now, but it may not be in five years’ time. Generation Z and millennials are looking at what the culture is within companies [before applying for jobs there] and menstrual equity and female wellbeing are going to be important.”
Clarke is also keen to point out that from the earliest days of Moonai, she has received support from men as well as women.
“Doctors, neuroscientists, my co-founder. I never meant Moonai to be solely done with a female team: it’s very diverse in every aspect: age, the culture, the language,” she says. “It’s about having those different perspectives to call on.”
Thus far, Moonai has produced its music and sounds in-house, although earlier this year it also worked with artists Fernanda Aleman and Kazam on live ‘Moonai Sound Experience’ events – “a fusion between electronic music, science and wellbeing” – to give people a taste of the app’s experience in the physical world.
Moonai could use AI-generated music, and that’s something it’s planning to explore, but Clarke explains that working with human artists is going to be key to its evolution too.
“We really want to keep the human aspect. We’ve been working with more independent and smaller artists, including some involved in LGBTQ collectives. It’s a key point where we stand,” she says.
Clarke also admits to a certain frustration at the music industry’s approach to apps like Moonai: she would like to see the bigger rightsholders take more of an interest in this kind of startup and technology. She hopes that the lessons being learned by Moonai may have value to them.
“We’re building this machine of understanding what parameters on the human body in the menstrual cycle is affected by what sound characteristics,” she says.
“Outside clinical trials, this could be super-valuable for the bigger players [in music]. They could see us as a hub of research! But we can also be a new revenue stream for artists. There are so many things that could be done.”
Moonai in its current form focuses on one specific thing: period pain. There is lots of potential to widen that though: within women’s health alone pregnancy, childbirth, parenting, the menopause and oncology (cancer treatment) are among the potential expansions mentioned by Clarke.
“Since day one I’ve often been pushed [by other people] to move to mental health on a general level. ‘Why not men too?’ But you need to become a player in a niche, and then you can grow. For us it was very important to keep focused,” she says.
(Women’s health being under-addressed is a key part of this, but Clarke also explains that differences between the sexes in the perception of pain and the response to music – a variation that often isn’t taken into consideration – are also a reason to specialise.)
“The beauty of working with an audience represented by women and non-binary people is that they talk, and they come to you: ‘I would like Moonai but for this problem or that problem…’ We have a huge roadmap of how we want to grow.”
“We are going to prioritise the different steps. For now the focus is on closing this pilot; opening our next fundraise; going through the big clinical trials – which is your pass to go anywhere when you want to scale – and to improve and increase our resources,” adds Clarke.
“We should get a prize for what we have achieved so far with so little money and so small a team! But we have been creative in finding new revenue streams, and after Techstars Stockholm we have so much more confidence in what we are doing.”
As it grows, Moonai is also thinking hard about some of the sensitivities around an app that is focused on the menstrual cycle. In the US last year, there was a flurry of reports about women deleting period-tracking apps from their phones, amid concerns that the data collected by those apps might be used against them in states where abortion had been made illegal.
Moonai isn’t a period-tracking app, but by default – it’s likely to only be used on the days of a month when someone has their period – it will have access to that kind of data. How is it approaching this?
“It’s about being transparent and not sketchy, and not collecting so many sensitive data points. We explain how we’re collecting them, where they’re stored and how we use them,” says Clarke.
“I’ve gone into the privacy policies again this week actually, and re-read them line by line. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to have my data shared around! But transparency really is the key: I’m going to be talking about this more and more, including to users directly.”
Like many startups, it has been a rollercoaster ride simply getting Moonai to this point, on the verge of a commercial launch. Clarke confesses that when she first decided she wanted to work in the field of sound wellness “it felt like Mickey Mouse land” [i.e. unrealistic] to expect to actually achieve that.
“But here we are, connecting and having more and more serious conversations with governments and public institutions about women’s health, and wellness, and pain modulation and cognitive performance,” she says.
“People did think I was crazy when I came up with the idea for Moonai. ‘If that doesn’t exist, that means that it doesn’t work’. But I had a mindset of trust in the process: manifestation and all these things. ‘I can tell you in a month that there is going to be amazing news!’ And there would be. It was a lot of guts, feeling and intuition.”
However, she makes a point of talking about the importance of her colleagues, and of surrounding herself with people who are “tough, who are supportive, who will tell you to your face when something’s wrong”.
“Moonai could not work without my co-founder. If we were sailing a pirate ship, I would be at the top of the mast saying ‘we go that way because I know it’s that way!’ and he would be the one downstairs making all the work happen to go there,” she adds. “We’ll still be navigating together, but he is the one getting hands-on making everything work!”
“That’s the beauty of working with people that you consider to be smarter, and that you can trust and who understand the vision and you. These people around me really make Moonai what it is, along with the audience we are working with.”