The Finnish company Valkee that makes led-powered light earplugs they claim treats Seasonal Affective Disorder is in financial trouble, and I can’t say that I’m sad. I’ve been meaning to blog about them for a while, but yesterday something happened that nudged me over to make the keyboard clack on my summer holiday. So, what do I have against Finnish innovation and a potential relief for a serious ailment?
Valkee is a company that’s been in the headlines in the last few years in Finland. A start-up from the north, they came up with a rather sexy looking device they claimed treats Seasonal Affective Disorder, gives you more energy etc. They got recognition from our very start-up friendly government, bunches of grant and venture capital money, awards by the president and so forth. This was and is a country that’s continuously on prowl for “the next Nokia” and this looked a good candidate – medical technology, a sexy product and Nordic design!
Valkee earlights came to the market in 2010 but the sales weren’t stellar. The problem was, they lacked any shred of credible basic research that their product actually worked. This minor handicap was offset by aggressive marketing and PR campaign and the sales went up during the next year, with some sort of activity that looked like research going on in the background. In 2012 a whistleblower tipped the media, there was an exposé and the questionable scientific practices around the product came to light.
I’m not going to delve into the details of all that’s questionable in Valkee’s science, that has been done online pretty extensively. English speaking readers may want to check out earlightswindle.com – whoever runs that site seems to have a huge hard-on for bringing Valkee down, but by an large their criticism of Valkee’s science seems valid. Finnish speaking readers can check out roskatiede-blog and Skeptics United. In short, Valkee hasn’t apparently published a single paper in a credible peer-reviewed journal, only in unindexed and at times blacklisted pay-for-publication junk journals that are one step from “mugwort healed my Elvis clone baby” stuff. In their own experiments placebo treatment worked better than the earlight, looks like they got caught changing a placebo group to an active group in one of their studies, and so on. Generally, you don’t even need to be an expert in the related fields to see the problem in many of their studies – you just need to have the basic knowledge of how to run scientific experiments to see everything is not okay. I don’t think some of these studies would’ve passed a Master’s thesis tutor.
But don’t trust random internet besserwissers. The University of Oulu, where the research started from and is based in, published a peer-reviewed survey of research done by 32 international experts, and they rated research related to Valkee as unsatisfactory with a score of 2/6. Out of 16 research groups it was the second to last in the research quality metrics, and the only one they beat was an incomplete submission that “may have been put together by a secretary who is not trained in providing relevant content” and which has “no science to review”. That, right there, is pretty damning – the only thing they beat had no science to evaluate.
Fuck Science, Let’s Pivot a Start-Up
So, internet sceptics, scientifically literate journalists and an international panel of 32 scientific experts agree that Valkee’s science appears sub-par – I think it is now pretty well established. These things happen, sometimes science doesn’t pan out, so what’s the problem? Well, now we’ll get to what’s my problem with the whole thing.
Having no science or proof to back them up Valkee took a 10€ worth of components and sold them for 200€ with claims of efficacy for Seasonal Affective Disorder, with aggressive marketing and PR.
S.A.D is no joke. It’s not people being a teeny-tiny bit gloomy and without pep. It can be a crushing, debilitating condition that makes people desperate, ready to do whatever it takes to get them feeling better, and that’s what Valkee is preying on with their practices. The fact that they are selling their product aggressively with no proof of efficacy puts them on the same line with homeopaths, crystal healers and all the other snake oil salesmen.
Yet, I’m finding it hard to call this an outright hoax. Never ascribe malice to where ignorance or incompetence can explain things better. For a long time Valkee has looked like it was a scientifically failed product that got taken over by Proactive Start-Up People who really don’t get it that (medical) research done right is not a Scrum sprint, it’s a marathon. User stories don’t mean shit unless they’re backed up with studies and clinical trials. The active start-up culture in Finland has done a great service by shaking loose the rather rigid company culture in this country, but it’s not really compatible with areas where you need a solid basic level science to back you up before you start cranking out products and social media campaigns. Maybe the scientific side of the project got pulled in for the ride, things started moving full tilt, and once you’re riding the tiger, it’s hard to step off. Unfortunately I can’t see Valkee people going “welp, whoops, didn’t work after all, our bad”, no matter what any research says.
Yesterday I had a couple conversations in Twitter that kind of backed my “taken over by start-up people” view. Timo Ahopelto, a serial entrepreneur and investor who is the former CEO and current chairman of the board in Valkee again brought up the amount of positive user feedback they continuously get. The following Tweet reads “Valkee has over 50 000 active users in 30 countries, there is positive feedback almost daily”. If I remember correctly, this is not the first time he’s been deflecting questions with their positive customer testimonials.
— Timo Ahopelto (@timomj) July 11, 2014
For fuck’s sake, this is not a bloody new app for finding a great new restaurant, this is medical science, and “positive user feedback” means almost absolutely jack shit in this context. Give those 50 000 people dyed tap water and tell them it’s medicine, and you’ll start getting positive user feedback from some. As a matter of fact, relying on user testimonials instead of research is a glaring, blinking warning light about homeopathy-level pseudoscience. I do not need to try the earlights myself to comment or critique their science, just like I don’t need to drink homeopathic water to comment on the science behind that. That’s just not how it works.
Then there was this from the founder and partner of the PR company handling Valkee:
The tweets read, in order, “What if ‘promising’ is used to sell 10€ leds to the depressed for the price of 200€? This is the core problem” – “Clinical information, for example electroconvulsive therapy. Current Care Guidelines. The science will catch up, if it can.” If you read Finnish, go and check the context from the conversation.
The science will catch up, if it can. Let’s think about that for a minute, shall we. Let’s also think about the fact that ECT is not a pop-product marketed in in-flight catalogues with a big price tag, and that unlike the light ear buds, ECT does have solid clinical evidence behind it. But hey, user stories, agile start-up, let’s pivot!
Valkee’s revenues are taking a massive nosedive and looks like they’re done for. To make it clear, I take absolutely no pleasure in this state of Valkee – as a matter of fact it pisses me off. I would’ve been very happy to see a new popular innovation like this coming from Finland, and a new way to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a big problem in a country like this where the sun don’t shine for half a year. Instead this debacle is a black mark on the medical technology sector here that pees on everybody’s cereals.
I do keep my mind open, and my “belief” is really easy to win: stop bragging with user testimonials and crank out a couple of peer-reviewed properly conducted studies published in respectable journals that show efficacy, and I’ll adjust my view. Simple as that. So far, even giving the benefit of a doubt, I haven’t seen a single convincing piece of evidence to that effect. What I’ve seen has been aggressive marketing and PR running over proper science dealing with a serious ailment. I do know that there are huge problems with how science is conducted in the medical industry in practice. It’s far from perfect, but it’s still better than the alternatives – and I think Valkee is a stellar example of why.
What I probably can’t change my mind on is that in my opinion what Valkee has done is so far beyond ethical that it’s beyond forgiving. Let’s remember again that S.A.D is not a laugh, it’s not just people being a bit gloomy and listless when it’s dark. It’s depression, and depression can kill. Preying on these people with an unproven expensive flimflam product is simply inexcusable, and that’s my main beef with Valkee.