CEO of digital therapeutics business Freespira talks about its approach to anxiety disorders


Freespira CEO Dean Sawyer said its FDA cleared digital therapeutic is the first that’s proven to significantly reduce or eliminate symptoms of panic attacks, panic disorder, and PTSD, in a single, 28-day treatment episode.

Dean Sawyer, CEO of Freespira, offered an overview of how his company is treating anxiety disorders with an FDA cleared digital therapeutic, in response to emailed questions.

Why did you start this company? 

The founders of Freespira are Beth and Russell Siegelman. The idea for the company was born of Beth’s experience as one of the subjects in a Stanford University research study testing a new approach to treating patients diagnosed with repetitive panic attacks, known as panic disorder. The standard approach at the time was to treat panic disorder and related conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with psychotherapy or medications, or both. That’s still the standard treatment today.

The Stanford researchers took a different approach. They theorized that panic disorder sufferers have an underlying physiological condition — chronic dysregulated breathing, from an underlying hypersensitivity to carbon dioxide (CO2) and that these physiological risk factors set the stage for panic attacks, which sometimes seem to come ‘out of the blue’ or when the person is exposed to stress or triggering situations. The study tested the hypothesis that normalizing the dysregulated breathing by teaching subjects to regulate their CO2 and respiration rate would reduce or eliminate the panic attacks. The researchers developed a treatment protocol calling for short, twice-daily physiological feedback sessions using hospital-quality measurement devices and an audio tape player providing paced breathing tones.

It worked. The experience of participating in that study was life changing for Beth. She was thrilled to be free of the debilitating panic attacks and determined to launch a company to help other people suffering from recurring panic attacks. Her goal was an ambitious one – to develop and manufacture the world’s first low-cost, commercial-grade portable sensor that could be used by patients in their own homes to measure, monitor and ultimately normalize their breath-to-breath exhaled CO2 levels and respiration rate (i.e., normalize their dysregulated breathing pattern). Beth’s husband, Russell, who was then a partner at the legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, joined her in launching the company. He currently serves as Freespira’s Chairman. The Siegelmans launched the company with angel funding and built a team with founding CEO Debra Reisenthel and CTO Simon Thomas who developed and patented the Freespira system and received FDA clearance for panic disorder and PTSD based on clinical studies reporting significant and enduring clinical benefit. Dean Sawyer was hired as CEO in December 2019 to lead the growth phase of the company.

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