As an orthopedic surgeon in Clinic ViaSana, Jur Vellema is mainly engaged in physical work. Not only during operations but also in the clinic, where he helps about fifty patients on an average day. As the chief medical officer at AlphaBeats, an Eindhoven based startup that helps people to de-stress with music, the emphasis is on the mental. And in the meantime, he is also working on a multidisciplinary practice that wants to connect the best of orthopedics, physiotherapy, and neurology. What drives Jur Vellema to this unusual combination of activities?
“For years I’ve been incredibly busy with the pure orthopedic part of my work, say, the carpentry, the chiseling, the surgery. But gradually I discovered that the solution for people was only partly dependent on that. Certainly with the shoulder, my specialty, the more neurological aspect needs to be added more often. How do you feel, how does your brain talk to your body – many abnormalities are nothing more than a disorder in the translation between what happens in your brain and what happens in your shoulder.”
The brain-shoulder connection
Vellema is talking about an adjustment in the brain-shoulder collaboration. “Some people completely lose the ability to move the arm above the shoulder. The brain just forgets it can do it. Our brain is very elastic, it constantly adapts, but sometimes that’s negative: you lose a bit of information about how to move.” At that point, surgery is no longer sufficient. In fact, there are more effective solutions – and less radical ones. Vellema: “Sometimes it’s enough to ask someone with a problem in his right shoulder to get in front of a mirror and lift the well functioning left arm. Because the brain thinks through the mirror that it is the defunct shoulder that moves, the blockage can suddenly be resolved. If the problem is in your brain, if, for example, someone literally carries the burden of the world on their shoulders, then you don’t even solve it with 100 operations.”
That’s how “that simple bone doctor” Vellema came on the trail to orientate herself in a wider sense. He first focused on the entrepreneurial side: in 2016, Vellema followed an MBA, with the goal of discovering how different disciplines could work better together. “I wanted to be able to do more than just repair bones and besides that, I wanted to see how we could connect the body and brain and reach out to other disciplines. Too often, everybody is just working in their own cubicles, as an orthopedist, a physiotherapist, or a neurologist, nobody who integrates that. I wanted to change that.”
“We want to help all employees in the Netherlands with their stress level.”
There was another motivation for Vellema to emphasize the mental element a bit more. “It’s not just our patients who need it, it’s the practitioners themselves as well. The pressure in health care is so high, it’s just unhealthy. And this is the case in many industries. So I not only wanted to heal the patient, I also wanted to help all employees in the Netherlands to cope with their stress levels.”
All those traces together, “plus my own brain that’s always in a state of action”, brought Vellema into contact with AlphaBeats. It turned out to be a golden opportunity. “For a variety of reasons, both for me personally and in the pursuit of my ambition. In my clinic, the whole day is scheduled from minute to minute for me. One patient after another, I can’t do anything in between. I missed the feeling of freedom, but also to be busy with various things at the same time. On top of that: I have a lot of joint complaints myself and then my job is a tough one. A day at AlphaBeats costs me about a third of the energy of a normal day, so that’s nice too.”
The wish to be able to lead a more diverse existence has already come true, Vellema tells me a big smile. “The exciting, the unknown, every time you think you’ve done it, there are another 20 tasks to be done and all very diverse. My name may be Chief Medical Officer, but believe me, I think that’s less than 5% of what I actually do at AlphaBeats. Thank God I did that MBA!”
Then Vellema takes a more serious tone. “I do have a very high goal here. Some say it’s dangerous, but it’s necessary. With AlphaBeats, we want to offer the simplest and most accessible solution to bring our society back into line with nature. We all know it: we have to stop doing all those ridiculous things we do, the way we work, the things we think we should do, our pace is way too high and doesn’t fit the intended pace of nature at all. Just look at the lion: the strongest animal you can imagine but 90% of the time it doesn’t do anything at all and that way it’s very successful. And in the meantime, we think we should be ‘on’ 100% of the time. Our most important goal is to offer solutions that fit in with that. Where we motivate people to take a walk or do something with your children before you go back to work. And we think we can do that through AlphaBeats. For everyone.”
AlphaBeats has built a system that uses someone’s favorite music to relax the brain. Based on real-time monitoring of brain and heart activity, an algorithm makes it possible to adjust the music slightly, allowing the brain to go into “alpha mode” and relax.
AlphaBeats says your brain can be de-stressed in just 10 minutes. Isn’t there something contradictory in that: on the one hand emphasizing the importance of “not always being on” and at the same time offering a solution that resets the mind in just 10 minutes? Vellema: “Yes, in a way we also feel that as a split. That’s why we put it down as a start that is clear and achievable for everyone. We know that the effect will increase if you use our system more often. But you also have to make it as easy as possible for people. And that means that if you can achieve a significant improvement in just 10 minutes, then you have to start right there. A low starting threshold and also using your own favorite music, who wouldn’t want that? From there, we can move on, by transforming ingrained unconscious reactions to stressors. With 10 minutes a day in 4 weeks’ time, we can do that, that’s the heart of the matter.”
It goes without saying that Vellema took the test himself. “I’ve been using the system for about 3 weeks and I was scared of myself. You should know that normally, when I come home from work, I’m still 120% on. I sort of rake in my food into my mouth and see nothing of my surroundings. Well, I started using that app and I noticed to myself that all of a sudden I was kicking a ball with my kids. I was really shocked by that at first, but then it just became conscious as well and now it has become normal for me. With AlphaBeats, we want to offer a little push to help people over that threshold, but make no mistake: our system really works”.
But how exactly? Vellema: “In what remains of our reptile brain, the stress factors are very deeply hidden. We make them visible. We give feedback to the brain. And the brain reacts to that. With stress, we can do it, but there might be more: with phobias and depression we should eventually be able to do it as well, but that’s still too complex now. We have always assumed that all kinds of autonomous processes cannot be influenced, but they can. As doctors, we have to stop offering a pill for every complaint. There is a deeper reason so often. The mere act of a placebo indicates how strong the mind really is.”
In fact, AlphaBeats says it provides a shortcut for all those people who find it difficult to recognize why they are stressed. It’s often the sum of work, private life, the dog that’s annoying, the traffic jam to work and whatnot. They are unconsciously ingrained patterns that bother someone. AlphaBeats – just like the mirror in that patient with the defunct right shoulder – is an instrument to break into these patterns, without the immediate need to know the exact cause. The latter is for phase 2, when the most palpable stress has disappeared and there is room for a real change of habits.
“Switching off is something you have to impose on yourself.”
But what about the development of the startup itself? If one category of companies is always ‘on’, it must be startups. Always looking for improvements, extra team members, new markets, and investors. Can that be the lifestyle that AlphaBeats propagates?
“Yes, that could be a trap for us”, Vellema admits immediately. “I do a lot of things at the same time and so do my colleagues. But there’s also a protective effect by talking about it with each other. We’re also sometimes unavailable for half a day, just to switch off for a while. My weekly schedule does make it necessary for me to work on the weekends as well. Yet I also set myself hard limits, also from the realization that if I don’t, we never get where we want to end up. Switching off is something you have to impose on yourself.”