Startups Capitalize on Graying of America

From virtual reality that engages users to pill-dispensing robots, entrepreneurs seek to improve the lives of seniors and assist caregivers.

By Eric Taub

As baby boomers age and consider the possibilities of entering senior living, they’re bringing with them a new set of expectations. 

This is the first generation that grew up with remote controls, answering machines, computers, high-speed internet and mobile phones. High technology, while often a challenge, is not foreign to them. 

As a result, they increasingly want it to be available wherever they live. 

Tech innovators heed the call

Younger entrepreneurs are responding in kind, creating startups that look to use the technology that’s always been a part of their generation, to solve the problems that their aging parents and grandparents face.

Those who are launching companies are often motivated to do so by experiencing the problems associated with an aging loved one. Yet the passion that comes from those observations is no guarantee of riches.

“Success is about the creation of value,” says Arnold Whitman, a partner in Aging2.0, a San Francisco-based company that hosts events and financially supports innovators in the seniors housing space. “The successful healthcare businesses will be the ones that solve the big spend issues.”

Whitman points to such companies as Vynca, which has devised a way to document advanced planning directives and make those wishes known across the care continuum. Costly, aggressive treatments all too often are given to persons at the end of life against their will. The result: when Vynca is used, there’s a 37 percent reduction in hospital admissions, and a 59 percent cut in ICU admissions, according to the company.

Whitman has also invested in Active Protective, a startup that is developing a unique belt that uses 3D motion sensors to detect when an individual is about to fall, and then deploys built-in micro airbags to protect them when they do.

The company says that its technology can reduce fall impact by 90 percent. If the product works — it’s not yet available — the number of hip replacements due to fractures and their contribution to increased medical costs, reduced life expectancy and quality of life could be dramatically altered. 

Virtual reality brings tears of joy

While these are some examples of products that could have a big impact on cost, a number of smaller entrepreneurs are betting that their use of technology to improve seniors’ lives can be just as impactful for the individual.

Virtual reality — the ability to create a three-dimensional world viewed through goggles and a headset — has mostly been deployed in the world of video games. But several companies see it as potentially having a major impact in senior care.

MyndVR, based in Dallas, is licensing existing virtual reality content, as well as creating its own, to enable seniors who can no longer travel to experience other worlds and revisit familiar locales from their youth.

The company ensures that all the content they offer — which is viewed through a Samsung Oculus Virtual Reality headset — is senior-friendly. Hence, there are no roller-coaster videos or zombie movies.

Instead, the five- to 10-minute videos offer calming scenes, such as pet videos, a 1950s jazz club, classical music and travelogues. Using a virtual reality headset, viewers can move their head in a 360-degree angle, and as they do they can change their perspective of the scene.

“It’s the most beautiful thing to see tears of joy from the residents who become immersed in a music video that makes them feel as if they’re there,” says Chris Brickler, a company co-founder.

While anecdotal evidence shows that users experience dramatic positive mood changes while viewing MyndVR videos, there is no evidence yet that watching them has lasting benefits. To find out, the company has partnered with seven universities to conduct clinical trials to determine if there are long-term mood improvements.

Now used across 600 senior communities, including hospices, skilled nursing facilities, and independent living homes, MyndVR is sold on a subscription basis, with a community paying $75 to $100 per month per headset for the hardware, content and tech support.

‘Step into a patient’s shoes’

Virtual reality can aid the caregiver as well as the patient, believes Carrie Shaw, CEO and founder of Embodied Labs in Los Angeles. Her company is developing virtual reality modules that enable caregivers to better understand the state of their elderly patients.

“What if healthcare providers could step into a patient’s shoes?” asks Shaw. “I knew that virtual reality would answer that question.”

Embodied Labs currently offers eight modules that allow the user to virtually enter the body of an individual suffering from hearing and vision loss, Alzheimer’s disease, and the physical and mental issues caused by nearing the end of one’s life. 

For example, in the early-stage Alzheimer’s module, the user struggles with cognitive processes and finds a way to talk to her family about being sick. In the middle-stage Alzheimer’s module, the user experiences hallucinations and what it’s like to become confused.

Each combines live-action video with the ability to use one’s own hands. A game engine allows users to make real-time decisions about one’s own care.

In evaluations at various healthcare organizations, pre- and post-activity questionnaires given to users have shown an increase in a caregiver’s confidence levels, positive behavior, and feeling of empowerment once they’ve used the modules. 

Sold on a subscription basis of $4 to $7 per month per user plus hardware costs, Embodied recently won first place in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s XR Education Prize Challenge. The purpose of the competition “is to accelerate the most promising companies innovating at the intersection of post-secondary education and virtual, augmented or mixed reality (collectively known as XR),” according to a website dedicated to the contest.

“The $250,000 cash prize will accelerate our venture capital raise in 2019,” says Shaw.

Both Embodied and MyndVR are examples of using virtual reality in a way to better communicate with the elderly. A number of other companies are looking to use technology to increase social engagement between the elderly and with their loved ones.

Urloop (pronounced “your loop”) has developed software for “active,” tech-savvy, affluent, older adults to engage with like-minded groups, learn about events, and access curated content.

Accessible via a tablet or smartphone app, the user base acts as a co-developer, offering Urloop suggestions as to features.

While the app is free to use, a special fee-based version for seniors housing communities also offers the ability to include customized service requests, such as changing a lightbulb in a senior’s residence, which will then automatically be routed to the appropriate caretaker. 

While all users of the free version see the same content, the community version — which is sold to an organization for about $500 per month regardless of the number of users — can also offer unique content uploaded by staff and available only to its residents. 

Virtual assistants on the way

Popularized by Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Home, voice control is increasingly being used as an easy way to foster social engagement. While the elderly often forget how to use technologies with which they were once familiar, such as television remote controls and iPads, voice commands remain intuitive for all but those suffering from dementia and other debilitating illnesses.

Lifepod describes itself as a “voice-controlled virtual assistant, personalized by the user or caregiver,” according to CEO Stuart Patterson. Utilizing Amazon Alexa technology, the software product comes with five pre-programmed routines that can be customized by the caregiver. Routines include check-ins, games, news and prescription reminders.

Unlike a standard Alexa device, which requires the user to begin the interaction by saying “Alexa,” Lifepod can proactively start speaking.

The software can initiate a dialogue with the user at a prescribed time. For example, the software can ask, “How did you sleep?” Based on the answer such as “well” or “bad,” it can then be programmed to automatically alert a caregiver. 

A birthday noted in an online calendar can trigger the question, “It’s your son’s birthday today, would you like to call him?” And, if the answer is “yes,” the software automatically initiates the call through the Alexa device.

Still in the pilot stage, Patterson expects to have Lifepod — which will cost $20 to $60 per user per month — commercially available at the end of this year. 

Other features have been requested by testers, which may be incorporated later. One is an intelligent public address function, which would allow communities to prompt only those residents who expressed an interest in an event to learn about it. 

The device may also eventually give users reminders about upcoming TV shows and offer to turn on the TV automatically. Also, based on a doctor’s appointment listed in a calendar, Lifepod could proactively ask the user if transportation to the appointment is needed. 

Robots a literal lifesaver

Voice and video are also a key element of Ohmnilabs’ social engagement Ohmni Robot, a three-wheeled, anodized aluminum, stick-like device that can move room-to-room, nod up and down, and comes complete with a head-like video screen and camera.

Unlike a standard tablet that uses Facetime or Skype to communicate, the Ohmni Robot’s ability to move its screen and scoot around gives it enough of a human-like stance that the elderly become more engaged, says co-founder Thuc Vu.

Thanks to its physical flexibility, grandchildren can watch a TV show with a grandparent, by aiming the device’s video camera at the grandparent’s TV screen, and then view in tandem with them; telling the robot to nod up and down in appreciation increases the social interaction, Vu says. 

The Ohmni has already saved one life. After not being able to reach his mother in Mexico, a U.S.-based caregiver instructed his mother’s robot to travel around her home looking for her. Finding her lying on the floor in the bathroom, the caregiver was able to call emergency services to rescue her. 

The device looks skeletal and robotic, Vu said, because anything that looks too human comes across as eerie. Next up for the $1,500 product: a version that includes arms, allowing it to open doors, and turn the stove on and off.

More than a med dispenser

Eeriness was also on the mind of James Wyman and his colleagues when they designed Pillo, a super-cute tabletop pill compliance device. Unlike more utilitarian pill dispensing competitors from Philips and others, the small-footprint Pillo sports a happy face screen and offers additional features beyond simply dispensing drugs.

“It’s a mashup of an Amazon Alexa and a Keurig coffee maker,” says Andrew Miller, senior vice president of innovation and product development for AARP. The seniors organization is working with Pillo to determine consumer interest in the product. 

The full-face screen includes a facial recognition camera; verbal mediation reminders are announced only when the recipient is identified and near the device. The screen can also deliver educational videos, answer spoken general-knowledge and weather-related questions, and act as a phone, connecting the user to a loved one through the Pillo device.

Pills are loaded through the back of Pillo; an internal camera prevents loading the wrong pills or too many of each. While Pillo doesn’t know that a user has actually taken his or her medicine, it does know if the dispensing cup has been lifted and replaced, and whether the actual user is in front of the device.

Expecting to launch at the end of this year, Pillo Health has raised $3.5 million of a $6 million round of fundraising. The largest investor is Stanley Healthcare, part of Stanley Black & Decker, a supplier to over 12,000 senior living communities. 

Survival not guaranteed

Will all these companies be successful? Most likely, not. 

Many companies that have harnessed technology to improve outcomes continue to barely survive after years in business, still looking for increased interest among healthcare providers. It’s not just about a great solution. It’s about making a viable business case, overcoming corporate inertia and convincing potential customers to accept new ways of working.

And that’s no small task, notes Whitman, of Aging2.0 “In healthcare, too many companies continue to use just pen and paper.”