Innovators Are Setting Their Sights on the Seeds of the Aging Population

A growing number of startups are applying some innovative thinking to addressing the needs of the aging population. From mobile apps and tracking solutions that help seniors remain at home to assistive devices that allow them to maintain their independence, there is no shortage of ideas coming out of accelerators and incubators these days.

Frank Rudzicz, a scientist with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute–UHN (University Health Network) says the aging population market is ripe for innovation, and investors are taking notice. This is being helped considerably with the advent of AI, machine learning, IoT, robotics and other important underlying technologies.

“There are simply not enough facilities or resources to manage the needs of older adults,” he says. “We need technologies that can keep people in their homes longer, identify early warning signs of dementia, or monitor movement in the home.”

Ubiqweus Inc. is applying its IoT innovation to address the needs of seniors at home. Two years ago it began developing a one-inch cube tracking device called qBiq. Co-founder James Daigle says the goal was to create transmission/receiving devices that can be attached to objects around the office or home.

During his time with the INFINITI LAB accelerator program, Daigle found their initial idea was too broad in scope. “We realized the real traction was with the aging population so decided to focus on that.”

As the fastest growing segment in Canada, the aging population is putting increased strain on healthcare systems and family members, he notes. “What is alarming is that 48 per cent of people say they are earning less because they are caring for their parents. One in four get fired or have to leave their jobs as a result of caregiving.”

qBiqs can be placed around the home on medicine cabinets, front or fridge doors, temperature controls, chairs or other areas that can collect data on a person’s movement. The distinguishing feature of the devices is rather than just monitoring, the sensors create an IoT community, Daigle says.

For example, if a door opens at a strange time, or a medicine cabinet is not opened when it’s supposed to, the device will send an alert to designated caregivers that will start a conversation, he explains. “We are using them to help families, neighbours or volunteers look after mom and dad.”

Ubiqweus is within weeks of delivering its first products for the consumer market. In the meantime, Daigle says commercial applications are coming to the fore in areas such as pharmaceuticals, animal monitoring, water harvesting, and automatic doors in commercial buildings. This will help create the economies of scale needed to reach a suitable price point for consumers.

Supporting seniors and the elderly at home is also the impetus behind Mavencare in Toronto. It has developed a technology-enabled home care service for seniors that provides real-time monitoring and family updates.

“Research shows that 90 per cent of seniors want to stay at home,” says Adam Blackman, MD and CEO. “But when they start to need help, the issue for family members is, are they safe enough to stay at home? The ability to use mobile technology with matched caregivers extends the ability of people with chronic conditions to stay at home longer.”

He stresses that Mavencare is an end to end integrated technology solution that allows real-time reporting of data and ongoing monitoring; applies algorithms to match seniors with professional caregivers based on their skills and attributes, and provides the necessary home care services.

In pitching this type of solution, Blackman says investors are increasingly paying attention to the sector. “A lot are recognizing that elderly care is a major concern for society and there is a great need for innovation.”

Orello Hearing Technologies Inc. in Vancouver is tackling a different but widespread aging challenge: progressive hearing loss. It started out as a general mission to help a global population with limited or no access to hearing aids, says CEO William Brenner. “Roughly 10 per cent of the global population has some sort of hearing deficiency. At the age of 65, that number jumps to one in three.”

Orello spun out from the Technology Entrepreneurship Program at Simon Fraser University where Brenner worked on a collaborative project between the Beedie School of Business and SFU’s Mechatronics Systems Engineering program.

Their research uncovered a significant unmet market need, Brenner says. “The current world hearing aid market is meeting less than 10 per cent of the global demand. The reasons for that are cost and accessibility to specialists.”

The two key features of Orello technology is the companion mobile app for administering hearing tests, and a thermoplastic process that allows the device to be easily custom molded in the ear canal from the comfort of a person’s home. A simple test will determine what frequencies need to be boosted and which can come through on a “pass-through” level.

The retail price is about one-fifth of standard hearing aids available today. Orello will be launching a product in the U.S. by the summer of this year using an online direct to consumer model, Brenner says.

He believes as early entrants, they have a good jump on a market that is poised to accelerate following the passing of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act last August. The legislation enables people with mild to moderate hearing loss greater accessibility and affordability in over-the-counter hearing aids, without the need to be seen by hearing care professionals.

“We had a unique insight into the market earlier than most,” Brenner says. “A few companies have popped up in recent months since the FDA announcement, but we are already well ahead of them.”

Better yet, interest has been strong on the global front, he adds. “No matter who we talk to, they see potential for what we have to offer.”