You know what’s still made in America? Laser spewing hair helmets.
Last August, a startup called Theradome began selling a device—aptly named the Theradome Laser Helmet—that promised to regrow peoples’ hair. Almost one year later, the company has sold thousands of the products, which look a bit like the lovechild of a bike helmet and an Apple laptop. The device sounds too good to be true. Wear it twice a week for about 20 minutes per session, and soon enough you end up looking like Redfoo. In more clinical terms, Theradome boasts that 100 percent of users will see some kind of hair regrowth after six months of use and that, on average, people will have about 40 percent of their hair come back. “We stop your hair loss; we thicken the hair you still have, and then you start seeing hair growth,” says Tamim Hamid, the founder and chief executive of Theradome.
I first ran into Hamid a couple of years ago. He’s a former research engineer at NASA, who, among other things, built a speech-recognition system for the space shuttle. After seven years with NASA at Kennedy Space Center, Hamid moved to Silicon Valley and got into the biomedical device market. He did four startups that made products that solved other peoples’ problems. For the fifth, however, Hamid decided to go after a cause near and dear to his scalp: his once lustrous, thick black hair had started to thin, and he figured near-total baldness was about a year away.
Armed with electrical engineering, computer engineering, and biomedical degrees, Hamid researched the problem and discovered the work of Dr. Endre Mester. In the mid-1960s, Mester had been trying to trigger the growth of cancerous tumors in rats through high doses of radiation. But during one of the experiments, the laser he was using was not calibrated quite right. Instead of creating a tumor, the laser seemed to stimulate the growth of hair on the shaved part of the rat. Mester wrote a paper discussing some of his findings, thus opening a new avenue of hair-loss inquiry.
Today, people can visit clinics such as the Hair Trauma Center in Chicago to get laser treatments. They have to make numerous visits over the course of a few months and sit under a large contraption as they get zapped.
Hamid aspired to an in-home solution at a lower cost, so he began tinkering in his garage. He designed some makeshift helmets and spent three months firing lasers at his skull. “There was something happening,” he said. “The hair on the top of my head started to grow at the same rate as the hair on the sides.” Hamid then moved his operation to TechShop, a sort of club for people who like to make things with their hands. He and a couple of employees at Theradome turned TechShop into a qausi R&D facility, as they prototyped early versions of the helmet. “For $99 a month, we got access to their oscilloscope and computerized cutting machines,” Hamid said. “We went through four or five generations of lasers trying to figure out the optimal design. The challenge was keeping dozens and dozens of lasers on your head without the device or person overheating.”
The product they settled on has 80 lasers, which, according to Hamid, mimic the effects of sunlight and help bring hair follicles back to life. The startup raised $468,152 via an Indiegogo campaign and sells its device for $795, about twice what Hamid initially expected it to cost. All the helmets are made at a factory in Silicon Valley. The government initially cleared the product for use only on women but is on the verge of approving it for men as well, Hamid says.
Theradome has a number of competitors, including the iGrow and Oaze helmets—all of which come with rather wonderful pictures of people kicking back in comfy chairs growing their manes.
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter@valleyhack.