Entrepreneurs connected to the AGE-WELL network are bringing technologies to market that help older adults remain independent and improve their quality of life.
Toronto-based Braze Mobility arose from its founder’s recognition that many older adults with mobility challenges were unable to access products that could significantly improve their lives. While working on her PhD, Pooja Viswanathan was part of a team developing technology to improve mobility options for older adults, including those who weren’t able to use power wheelchairs due to cognitive or visual impairments.
“That took me down the path of entrepreneurship and the recognition that a startup offered a perfect opportunity to commercialize products and meet a need that wasn’t being addressed by bigger companies,” says Dr. Viswanathan.
She interviewed wheelchair users to identify their top challenges, and this research guided her development of a suite of integrated products – essentially blind spot sensors that can be attached to any wheelchair to provide information about the location and proximity of obstacles.
“A key selling point is that our systems are customizable and provide multimodal feedback – audio, vibration or flashing lights – which improves safety and opens up independent mobility for those who have cognitive, auditory or visual challenges,” she says.
Braze ran a beta program for eight months, putting units in the hands of users in exchange for feedback. That insight provided useful guidance and helped the company prioritize areas of development.
Incorporated in 2016, the company has hired several full-time employees over the years – some of whom are alumni members of AGE-WELL’s training program – and has a large base of independent contractors selling products across the US and Canada.
Making Canada a global leader in technology and aging
“Nurturing startups is one of the vital ways in which AGE-WELL is having an impact on the lives of Canadians and is making Canada a global leader in technologies for healthy aging,” says Andrew Sixsmith, scientific co-director, AGE-WELL.
Other startups connected to the AGE-WELL network have also seen success by putting users and those in their circle of care at the heart of product development. Toronto- and Vancouver-based Famli.net Communications Inc. developed its multimedia messaging platform after extensive consultation with older adults and their caregivers.
Famli.net’s messaging platform, FamliNet.app, is designed to work on any device that runs a web browser and makes it much easier for older adults – including those with barriers related to vision, hearing and motor control – to send text, voice, videos and photos to family members, friends and caregivers.
Enthusiastically used over the past four years by seniors in retirement homes and assisted care facilities, FamliNet can dramatically improve quality of life for an often isolated segment of the population.
Richard Ratcliffe, 91, who uses FamliNet, says he “would be lost without it.” Life had become lonely for the war veteran and career naval officer because of profound hearing loss from “being a little too close to gunfire in Korea.” Things changed when he began using FamliNet. “It opened up a whole new world.”
Robert Arn, co-founder and chief technology officer of Famli.net notes that strong social relationships are one of the leading determinants of health. Finding ways to allow seniors to maintain their social relationships directly contributes to better health and increased enjoyment of life.
Initially developed by TAGlab at the University of Toronto with support from AGE-WELL, FamliNet continues to evolve. An upcoming version to be released in Canada and Singapore will automatically translate text into a different language, thereby bridging the language barriers that can prevent intergenerational family members from communicating with each other.
“A health-care solution is not worth anything to seniors unless it’s accessible to them and can be easily used,” says Dr. Arn. “Families that include seniors represent the biggest niche market you can think of, and products that address a serious quality of life issue can make a profound difference.”
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.