Sensors extend seniors' freedom

Burgeoning Lively tools keep loved ones who live far away updated

09/22/2013 8:00 PM

09/23/2013 6:42 AM

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are finding their next big idea in the elderly capital of America.

While the world’s biggest firms have struggled to develop products targeted at older consumers, a group led by former Apple, Microsoft and EBay employees last week unveiled Lively. The system of tiny sensors helps the elderly maintain their independence, letting far-flung relatives know whether they take their pills on time or exit the house.

Lively marks the first result of an effort by Sarasota County, Fla. – which boasts the highest concentration of elderly people of any large U.S. county – to transform the region into a test market for companies eager to tap into the $8 trillion buying power of seniors. The Institute for the Ages, a Sarasota nonprofit, played a key role in Lively’s creation, connecting the San Francisco-based company with residents who provided feedback to improve its product.

They included Bill Tavolga, a 91-year-old self-described tech geek who helped Lively’s developers find bugs in the system. The outcome was a tool that helps shrink the 350-mile distance between Phyllis Bek-gran, 89, and her son by letting him know when she doesn’t pick up her TV remote.

To Sarasota’s elderly, “we’re saying we want to capture your voice, so that any issue that you’ve got insights on, we’ll find the connections that can make that voice valuable,” said Tom Esselman, 52, a former Hallmark Cards executive who now heads the Institute for the Ages, which is part think tank, part market research company.

With the massive baby boom generation beginning to move into the ranks of the elderly, companies are trying to front-run the trend by figuring out the next hot products for seniors. So far their search has remained largely unfulfilled because of a marketing conundrum: Graying boomers, even more than previous generations, don’t want to be identified as elderly.

The idea for the Institute for the Ages emerged after Scope, a nonprofit community group whose name stands for Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence, sought advice from hundreds of residents on the topic of aging in 2008. Sarasota County Commissioners approved $1.2 million to get the institute off the ground, and a recruiting firm found Esselman.

Meanwhile in Silicon Valley, Iggy Fanlo was looking for opportunities in large, growing yet neglected areas of business. He had spent the past dozen years at Internet companies, including San Jose, Calif.-based EBay.

“What jumped off the page was aging,” said Fanlo, 51. Finding the existing market for passive home monitors for the elderly expensive and clunky, he decided to start there.

At a forum early last year sponsored by Maveron, a venture capital firm that Starbucks founder Howard Schultz helped create, Fanlo met David Glickman, 42. Glickman, then an entrepreneur-in-residence at Maveron, had worked at Apple, where he helped develop the Newton, a 1980s precursor to the iPad.

Soon after, Fanlo and Glickman, along with Keith Dutton, a former software engineer at Microsoft, founded Lively, and its eponymous first product was born.

In the startup’s hunt for market-research firms, Sarasota’s institute stood out. For one, it was cheaper – at about $25,000. Yet its primary appeal was the promise of qualitative feedback through hands-on access to seniors, Glickman said.

“There’s nothing more valuable than putting things in front of people and actually being in peoples’ homes to talk about it,” he said. Between him and and Fanlo, they visited all 30 pilot study participants – chosen because they lived alone – after arriving in Sarasota in February.

‘Aging in place’

One was Bek-gran, whose husband of 68 years died in 2010. Lively sensors throughout Bek-gran’s two-bedroom condo log when she opens her refrigerator and exits the front door. The data is then transmitted to a secure website for her youngest son, Peter, to view from his home in Key West.

“I also had one on my TV remote because we all know if I didn’t pick that up, there’s something wrong with what’s going on in the world,” Bek-gran recalled with a laugh.

One day, Bek-gran didn’t open her pillbox by 11 a.m. An email alert popped into Peter’s inbox, and on Lively’s website, a red, frowning face replaced a green smiling one next to Bek- gran’s medication icon. Her phone soon began ringing; it was Peter, with a reminder to take her pills.

For Bek-gran, who’s been active all her life and still shows her paintings at art exhibitions, maintaining her independence is crucial. Lively helps her do that, part of the growing “aging in place” market for products and technology, such as walk-in bathtubs and higher toilet seats, that assist people at home as they get older. The market is forecast to rise 10-fold to $20 billion by 2020, according to a report by research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch.

Next year, Lively plans to add a feature that could detect falls or allow a senior to call for help in the event of an emergency – the most-requested add-on during the trial run, Glickman said.

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