Aging in place with AI and Amazon’s Alexa

AgeTech firm seeks seed funding to help seniors stay independent and at home for longer.

With a majority of seniors preferring to “age in place,” Chicago-based start-up is aiming to support the aging population at home with a voice-based solution designed to help people stay active, healthy and independent. Initially leveraging Amazon’s Alexa platform, Wellsaid has developed an AI solution called My Day that has been specifically designed to support the well-being of older adults.

Longevity.Technology: The rise of virtual assistants and smart speakers has long been touted as having the potential to contribute to supporting continued independence in our rapidly aging society. So we were interested to find out how Wellsaid was leveraging this technology when we spoke with its founder, Dr Randall Williams, a speaker at this week’s Neurotech2020 conference.

A physician by background, Williams is also a successful entrepreneur, having founded and sold Pharos Innovations, a pioneering digital health and patient engagement technology company, initially built on an interactive voice response technology platform.

“About two years ago, as we were getting ready to exit that first business, we started to think about what was next for many of us on the management team,” he says. “We had a lot of experience with seniors and expertise in voice-based technology as a user interface, which was both accepted and useful among the senior population.”

Around the same time, smart technologies were beginning to take hold in the market, with offerings from many of the world’s largest technology providers.

“We were intrigued by smart speakers in particular, because of their consumer friendliness and rapid adoption, and felt that they were likely to mimic or even surpass some of the adoption of mobile devices over the previous decade,” says Williams. “So we took the opportunity to stand back and think about what kind of market would there be for a product that could help seniors through consumer grade technology. And we landed on the emerging and growing concerns about aging in place.”

My Day device
Wellsaid’s AI solution, called My Day. Source: Wellsaid

Rather than target healthcare providers or insurers initially, Williams and his co-founders decided to pursue seniors directly, and their family members and loved ones, and to do it using consumer-grade technology.

“It seemed to be a natural opportunity to pursue a problem that by and large was owned by the senior, their family members and carers,” say Williams. “As founders, we’ve all experienced the issues and challenges that family members have, with a lack of insight and visibility into how mom or dad are faring, and whether they’re getting into difficulties that we could have helped with before it ended up resulting in an admission to a hospital or a long term care facility.”

Wellsaid was founded in 2018, and about a year later, the company launched its first product – a free Alexa Skill, called My Day for Seniors.

“We started working in the Amazon environment using the Alexa devices, recognising that it would not be our only solution, but it would be a good starting point to figure out everything from consumer acceptance and adoption issues and challenges – through to how to work on a large scale big tech platform and not get your lunch eaten for you,” says Williams.

Using a simple question and answer check-in format, My Day flags areas of potential concern that might need additional attention, such as balance and fall risk, safety and security, loneliness or anxiety, medication challenges, nutrition status, or memory issues.

My Day was deployed initially in a senior living community in order to beta test the product.

“We learned very early that seniors really enjoyed it and found the user interface to be quite intuitive,” says Williams. “In our beta effort, we figured out the logistics and the interaction model and started to gather some cohort data on usage rates and retention rates.”

The company then spent the next six months fleshing out the machine learning and functionality of the product – working on the dimensions of wellbeing that seniors care most about, and those that drive the loss of independence if they’re not tended to. Throughout the day, My Day will check in with the senior with wellbeing-related questions about nutrition, activity level, interaction and social engagement, safety and security, challenges with driving, transportation and mobility, issues cognitive challenges, medications and appointments.

“We’ve developed a model of healthy active aging that involves seven dimensions of wellbeing, and we monitor how seniors are doing in each of those seven dimensions…”

“We use this information to develop a risk profile that, after an initial two weeks of interaction with our product, gives the senior and others who are involved in their care, a baseline holistic view of risk related to their aging independence. We also use that seven dimension content model to track any deterioration or decline and flag that to their carers.”

This ability to flag alerts to third-parties is what drives the commercial aspect of Wellsaid’s business – a companion app offered via a $15 monthly subscription model that carers or family members can use to access data relating to a senior’s wellbeing.

“It’s an iPhone and Android app that is for people who are involved in overseeing and interacting with the senior to help them stay independent,” says Williams. “So if you’re a senior and you give permission for your family to have access to your wellbeing data, they can access that information through their smartphone.”

Beyond its consumer model, Wellsaid is also now beginning conversations with businesses that can a financial benefit by helping seniors stay independent.

“We’re working with a couple of long term care insurance companies, which bear the financial cost if a senior loses independence and has to be placed in a care facility, to see if we can help prevent that from occurring,” says Williams.

Looking forward, Wellsaid is also planning to launch a specific product for cognitive impairment.

“We were just approved by Amazon for developing a HIPAA skill, so our cognitive impairment product would be our first HIPAA secured product,” says Williams. “We will be putting that through a clinical evaluation activity to validate that the product is as good as or better than a face-to-face expert assessment of cognitive impairment.”

Having bootstrapped the initial product development and beta testing, Wellsaid is now at the point where investment is required to help the company achieve its goals.

“We’re anticipating is that in 2021, we’ll be raising what would be considered seed stage investment in the business,” says Williams. “A particular amount in mind at this point is yet to be determined, but I would imagine that we’ll be raising somewhere in the $1.5 to $2 million range.”

Be sure to catch Dr Williams speaking at this week’s Neurotech2020 conference.

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