As anyone who has cared for an older person knows, getting them to wear an emergency help device 24/7 can be a challenge. The units often get removed when the person goes for a shower or to bed and they end up languishing on the bedside table. Even the best alert systems are useless if they’re not worn constantly and a big part of the problem is their design. These devices are often chunky and highly visible and men especially don’t like wearing them. But surely, in this era of cool wearables, there must be a better solution?
"There is," says tech veteran Feargal Duignan, who is the brains behind PacSana, a discreet, lightweight wristband designed to be worn all the time with no need to take it off for charging. "There is no solution currently on the market that matches the simplicity and wearability of our device while delivering real-time insights that will drive improved care outcomes and cost savings in care provision," he says.
Duignan founded PacSana in 2018 and the company will shortly begin its first pilot trials in Ireland and Britain. The product is expected to be commercially available in January 2020.
“The marketplace for monitoring wearables is a bit like a bazaar – lots of different offerings designed to address different problems,” Duignan says. “Because these devices are packed with electronics, they weigh a lot and are not comfortable to wear. Our aim was to offer a leading-edge monitoring solution with miniaturised components to make the device as light as possible.”
PacSana is described as a TEC (technology-enabled care) system and it uses a wearable sensor to gather data and maintain a real-time connection between older people and those who care for them. The wristband has the trendy looks of a modern fitness tracker and is underpinned by a wealth of smart monitoring technology.
Central to its “smartness” is movement monitoring which uses machine learning to build up a picture of the normal daily movement routine of a user. Once it has learned the pattern it can pick up changes in activity patterns that could signal something is wrong – for example, a user not rising at their usual time, wandering around the house in the middle of the night or being immobile in an unusual location in their home, such as a hallway. If an anomaly is detected the system sends an alert to a family member or care provider.
PacSana has a button a user can press for help, but it also activates its own alerts if the person becomes incapacitated and is unable to raise the alarm. For those with a competitive streak PacSana can be used to set movement targets which they are encouraged to exceed to incentivise activity and improve their well-being. Those who are smartphone savvy can follow their progress on their phones.
“Our solution reviews movement data to enable proactive and efficient care outcomes based on real-time insights,” Duignan says. “These include preventative action, early intervention, post-event notification and calls for help. It also facilitates data-driven care packages that allow for optimal resource management in a sector that’s facing increasing demands for its services.
“There is a real need to manage carer resources better due to the massive growth in the elderly population. Social care budgets are static or shrinking and care packages in the UK – our primary market initially – are being cancelled or not issued. Brexit is also expected to create a massive shortage of carers, and staffing and retention are already a huge issue.”
Forty Foot in Sandycove
The inspiration for PacSana came when Duignan got to know the older people he swims with at the Forty Foot in Sandycove. “I could see the positive impact daily exercise and being autonomous had on their lives,” he says. “From our conversations, it was clear that the best outcome for them was to be in their own homes for as long as possible.
“That got me thinking about what was preventing the active elderly from doing so and what technology solutions could be developed to help. I believe passionately that technology should be used to enhance vulnerable people’s lives.
“The current crop of wearable monitoring solutions is unattractive and unengaging. The devices are reactive and their success depends on them being worn all the time yet some need to be taken off for charging.
“In addition, their design aesthetic and size frequently leads to them being abandoned. PacSana is lightweight with a battery that lasts six months. We get an automatic alert when it needs to be replaced.”
Duignan tapped into a variety of expertise to bring his idea to life, including product designers in Dublin, sensor design and manufacturers in Slovenia and IOT and machine learning experts in Serbia. "These partnerships have been critical to the success we have achieved so far," says Duignan. He would like to manufacture in the euro zone and preferably in Ireland, although this will depend on cost.
Duignan spent a lot of time with focus groups before beginning to design his device and what came through loud and clear was that older people did not want to feel “watched” in their homes. This ruled out CCTV or other forms of intrusive monitoring.
“They value their privacy and some of what they said was quite funny, like not wanting their children to know how much wine they drank. But the serious message was that we needed a solution that produced what is essentially innocuous or abstract data that has no meaning outside the context of the individual using it. It’s all about the maths and analysing the data to predict outcomes.”
Duignan is no stranger to the entrepreneurial world, having worked in tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and Dublin in the late 1990s. He had studied economics and politics at Trinity College Dublin before gravitating towards IT and a variety of sales and consulting roles with companies such as Microsoft and Oceanfree. He is a former commercial director at health informatics start-up OpenApp, and most recently led the Dell EMC public sector business in Ireland before giving up his day job to focus full-time on developing PacSana.
Duignan is currently participating in the NDRC's accelerator at ArcLabs in Waterford Institute of Technology. By year end, investment in his business will be about €200,000. This includes private equity, €75,000 from the NDRC and support from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown LEO and Enterprise Ireland. The company is currently putting the final touches to a fundraising round which will be launched shortly.
PacSana can be used by ad hoc carers such as family members, in conjunction with existing telecare services and by domiciliary care providers, who are Duignan’s prime initial route to market.
“They have the strongest imperative to invest in efficient and economic care provision, so they are the focus for now,” he says. The ballpark cost of the device will be about €240 a year and its potential reach is global. However, the domestic market is not a priority.
“Ireland is not really a target as the HSE is typically focused on ‘time and task’ care models versus outcomes-based or ‘enhanced’ models and is slow to change,” Duignan says.