A Consilient Conversation – UnaliWear: How Wearables Extend Independence with Dignity to Seniors
In a world crowded with gadgets and constant upgrades, it’s amazing to meet people who are still doing meaningful and important things with technology. It is at these intersections of science and seeking a better way we find products and ideas built to make a difference, reminding us that business should always be about purpose first.
UnaliWear represents an ideal example of the committed, consilient approach to innovation: solving new problems in new ways through the combination of best practices in medicine, technology and elegant systems thinking.
Recently, as the CEO of Consilient Innovation Network, I spoke with Jean Anne Booth, serial entrepreneur and CEO of UnaliWear®, to discuss her latest project, a wearable tech device for seniors.
Showcased recently at this year’s SXSW interactive conference, the UnaliWear Kanega® watch includes speech recognition that acts as a medical alert system, medication reminder and also guards against wandering. I wanted to dig deeper into her motivators and her thoughts on the bigger issues of technology and its role in elder care.
Mark de L. Thompson: What is your professional background? How did you find yourself in the wearables business?
Jean Anne Booth: I’m an electrical engineer and worked in the semiconductor industry for almost 30 years. I was retired and working on a live-aboard dive boat when my mom and her identical twin had some issues that caused me to realize that, although they’re independent, they are also vulnerable. This realization was the beginning thought that made me start the company, and being able to extend independence with dignity is what landed me in the wearables business. There is a proven market for wearable technology, with an increasing demand rate of 45% within the US alone, according to a report from Forrester Research.
MT: In your Kickstarter video, you mention this experience with your mother, and the importance of bringing dignity and independence to an increasingly aging population. Can you share your thoughts on dignity and the ways UnaliWear provides this as a product?
JAB: For my mom, today’s emergency alert products actually rob dignity from seniors because the product design is so unattractive, because they are limited to use only in the home unless tethered to a smartphone (which my mom neither has nor wants), and because their oversized “help” buttons are seen as socially stigmatizing by most seniors. After understanding this, the first thing we set out to do with our Kanega watch was to develop a classically stylish design that worked anywhere—so that you’re wearing all you need to stay safe, no smartphone required—and as a part of the design process, we eliminated the stigmatizing “help” button completely with an easy speech interface.
In addition, we conducted a great deal of research as a part of our product development process, learning a lot from Nielsen’s global aging study. According to the study, two billion people will be at least 60 years old by 2050, and the primary fear of aging among this population is losing control over their lives. And yet, today’s emergency alert products remove this control because they require technical setup by caregivers, acting as a “tattletale” for minor issues. As a result, our second priority was to give control over back to the wearer, ensuring that the Kanega watch functionality does this at all levels. The initial setup is a guided conversation with the operator, so the person who wears the watch makes all the decisions about how the watch behaves, including who to contact and when.
Learn more about the UnaliWear Kanega Kickstarter project:
MT: What challenges did you experience during the prototype development process?
JAB: We purpose-built the UnaliWear Kanega solution to extend independence with dignity, and that meant we had to solve a few challenges that traditional wearables technology largely ignores. For example, by removing the large, stigmatizing “help” button, we asked what easy user interface could we instead implement. Asking this question with an open mindset led to investigating other methods of communication and, ultimately, integrating speech functionality and our assistive approach. As another example, we wanted our customers fully supported, wearing all they needed to stay safe. However, this comprehensive level of support required a full suite of communications options within the watch. As a result, we integrated cellular, Wi-Fi, and GPS technology, but this, in turn, required addressing power needs as these technologies are very power-hungry.
We also considered that the leading cause of injury death among seniors is falls—in fact, in 2013, approximately 25,500 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries. Because the majority of falls happen in the bathroom, and the majority of these happen at night, our customers must be able to wear the watch 24X7. Understanding this vital aspect led to the development of our patent-pending, quick-swap battery system in the watch band, so customers can leave their watch on 24X7, just replacing their batteries when the watch sends a notification.
MT: How do you feel the Boomer generation is redefining aging? How does UnaliWear meet this generation of seniors where they are?
JAB: First, a definition: given that average life expectancy is between 86 and 88 years old, we define a senior as aged 75+. By our definition, no Boomers are yet seniors. While many aspects of aging remain the same, I do expect some changes to happen as the Boomers age. The biggest change I expect to see, given Boomers as a group and especially for the Younger Boomers (who are between 50-58 years old today), is a change in attitudes and expectations for aging and health. The Silent Generation (which by the way, is not silent at all!) tend to cede health matters to their doctors, viewing their physicians’ pronouncements as sacrosanct. But I pity doctors as the Boomer Generation become seniors though—to a Boomer, that doctor trust is earned, not a given.
Now, for something a bit more controversial, and only time will tell whether I’m wrong or right. Most people assume that if you grow up with technology, you still continue to use lots of technology as you age. I disagree, but before I tell you why, here’s some data from the Pew Research Center:
Because fewer than 10% of seniors currently have a smartphone, we didn’t build the Kanega watch as an app on top of the Apple® watch or dependent upon smartphone technology in any way. But in evaluating the Elder Boomer population (aged 59 to 68), smartphone penetration is not as ubiquitous as one might expect.
Here’s a little more data from AgingEye.net:
Another way to interpret this data is that age-related maladies don’t care how tech-savvy you are or have been. If you lack the physical or mental capacity to learn new technologies or a strong desire to persevere, then you simply won’t keep up with the increasing pace of technology. As one final way to understand age and technology usage, think about how far away you are from turning 80 years old as of today, and then go back that number of years to the smartphone or cell phone technology that you used then. Now project that pace of change forward, imagining if you will really be using that level of new technology when you’re 80? I believe that when Younger Boomers turn 80 (approximately 20 to 30 years from now), that future technology will seem as different to this population as current technology looks to the Silent Generation.
One final point: I do believe that Boomers are online, and will continue in increasing numbers. This is supported by data from the Pew Research Center, as a fairly recent report found that more than half of older adults (defined as those aged 65+) were online. But I also believe that technology with form factors that complement the aging process, i.e., tablets and not standard smartphones with small screens that can be hard to read and small keys that are difficult to use, will be vital to senior internet usage and enjoyment.
MT: How do you think technology and personal devices will continue to benefit and aid seniors?
JAB: As technology has matured, we have finally begin building devices not for the technology itself, but instead for the people using technology. If you think about it, we’ve had tracking technology for decades—we can even track our lost pets—yet we see “Missing Elderly” Amber Alerts posted on signs and through our devices each week. Clearly, we don’t have a “technology problem,” we have a “people problem.” Or more specifically, a problem designing technology so that meets the deeper needs of humanity, including their social and personal dignity needs. In our case, that is extending independence with dignity.
MT: What is the long-term vision for UnaliWear? How do you hope it supports Generation X—a smaller but more digitally oriented generation—as they enter their senior years?
JAB: After the Kanega watch, our roadmap includes wearable sensors that can further help vulnerable populations stay safe and independent—with dignity, of course. What I find interesting about wearables and sensors is that most people don’t realize that consumer devices can be wildly inaccurate, often as much as 50%. If we had added biological sensors to the Kanega watch, it would have cost us $6MIL just for the FDA portion and delayed our timeline an additional 24 months pre-market to obtain FDA approvals. We hope to have some very useful sensors in our future products, but not until we can afford both the time and the money to work through the FDA process.
MT: How do you want UnaliWear to transform healthcare perspectives and care?
JAB: We must address the global population bulge of seniors that’s coming. The good news is that everyone is living longer (with many maintaining a good quality of life well into their later years); the bad news is that there will not be enough assisted living facilities for this coming volume of seniors, nor enough caregivers to help in our current healthcare model. Since a consistent 85% of seniors want to “age in place,” and retain their independence for as long as possible, we believe UnaliWear’s Kanega watch is the tool to help keep these independent-living vulnerable populations safe. We also added the ability to work with home telehealth devices (e.g., blood pressure monitors, glucometers, weigh scales) to make it easy for doctors to remotely manage independent patients, and we developed our medication compliance and adherence features specifically to reduce the 38% of nursing home admissions and 10% of hospitalizations caused by medication non-compliance.
MT: What advice would you give to an entrepreneur new to the healthcare industry?
JAB: I would strongly suggest finding a health-related accelerator or incubator program to make healthcare-related connections for you. Healthcare is a dauntingly complex field, but it’s also extremely rewarding and socially necessary. Healthcare is also such a “broken” industry in so many ways that if an entrepreneur can fix just one thing, it is worth so much more than yet another photo sharing app. During SXSW last year, I interviewed all the healthcare accelerators who attended to determine who UnaliWear would join. I chose StartUp Health for a variety of reasons, including the strength of their three-year program (nothing in healthcare happens in just a few months), and that they don’t ask entrepreneurs to move to New York, where they are based. The StartUp Health academy meets quarterly—usually in conjunction with major health industry events that most of us would be attending anyway—and we make heavy use of video conferencing between quarterly meetings. In addition, StartUp Health hosts speed pitch sessions with funding sources, potential corporate partners, and other strategic entities to help the startups make connections in the industry. I am very pleased with our choice of accelerators and highly recommend StartUp Health.