Sensormind: Startups and the R&D Cycle

Siobhan King-Hughes began her career working for Blue Chip international organizations in programming and development at Microsoft. From there she went on to have senior technical management positions at Frame Technology (now part of Adobe Systems.) After that she was at Lotus Development (now part of IBM) and then Oracle. Latterly she was Head of International Products at AOL.

At present she is the owner and CEO of Sensormind, a company she started to provide the technology that enables independent living to be maintained safely without any kind of obtrusive monitoring.

How did you get started in this area?

“I am interested in the application of technology and in automation and I was really interested in taking technology into a space where it wasn’t being widely used or wasn’t being used fully.

“When I came up with the idea for providing technology for independent living there wasn’t really very much happening in that space. When I went out to have a look at alternative products there wasn’t anything out there.

“My husband’s parents were elderly and living in a rural area. We would visit them and come home and then we would worry about them. We would ring them and no one would answer the phone and we would start thinking, “Are they OK? Are they not OK? Should I ring again? Should I not ring? Am I disturbing them if I ring or are they just not near the phone?”

“It was that kind of worry that triggered us to say, “Is there no way we can see what is going on without actually being there?” Obviously, putting a camera on someone is not something you want to do.”

How did the product evolve?

“I thought it would be quite simple to implement. As I got into it I realized there were huge complexities in what we were trying to do. Because, really what I was trying to do was behavioural analysis on the different behaviour patterns that a person has in their home. What’s normal, what’s not normal and then create alerts on the basis of what’s abnormal. Sifting those patterns from noise is quite a complex task.

“We were working on that for at least a year. Every entrepreneur says it always takes twice as long as you would think and this project definitely did.

“A number of different things happened along the journey as I was working on the core Sensormind product. We built a whole platform and we were doing a behavioural pattern analysis when we got talking to some people in the care industry and found that private home care managers were really struggling with managing their staff.

“We saw an opportunity where we could provide a product that could help them manage their staff. So instead of developing one product we ended up developing three.”

  • Sensormind Care Manager: Enables private home care organizations to manage their staff. They are delivering thousands of hours of care each week and they need to be sure that the people they are sending to a particular job actually arrive and make the visit on time.
  • Sensormind Personal Alarm: A social alarm for alerting others if the wearer needs assistance.
  • Sensormind Independent Living: A monitoring system that alerts if unusual activity is detected. It is based on an algorithm derived from a considerable amount of behavioural analysis.

(Sensormind Care Manager is available now. The other two products will be available early next year.)

How does Sensormind distinguish between normal and abnormal behaviour?

“It’s been a really interesting journey for us. We learned not to make assumptions about how people behave. Or to assume that everyone is going to behave in the same way. Or, to assume that people are always going to do the expected.

“There are people who stay up very late and get up late and people who get up very early and go to bed early. People have different visitor patterns. People who visit the home, friends, neighbours, family, that all has to be taken into account. If it’s a warm day and some leaves the doors open to let some air in then that has to be taken into account as well.

“So, there’s been a massive amount of ordinary behavioural data that we didn’t start off thinking about but we needed to think about as we went along and it is all built into our algorithm.

“That’s the core intelligence of our system. The real innovation is in how our system deals with all the different patterns and the collection of different patterns that can happen at the same time.”

Clearly Sensormind has the opportunity to lead in the inter-connected health space. Where do you see things going from here?

“Before you get a product on to the market there is a lot of research and development that has to happen to make sure it meets a particular standard. Unlike a regular consumer type product you can’t put something like this out if it doesn’t work properly. It’s not OK to say, “It’s just got a few bugs.”

“A lot more quality assurance than that needs to happen. There has to be a longer development cycle because in terms of safety and trust it has to be so much more reliable than a fun application for your iPhone.

“That means there has to be a lot more effort and cost put into the R&D cycle then for some other products. This makes it difficult for small startups to get traction in this space. There is a lot of work to do to get to a particular standard of reliability. Therefore, it’s really important for Ireland to support small indigenous startups that have good ideas to and help them get to a level where they can create jobs and start to bring some attention to this country in a positive way on the innovation side.

“I think we now have a highly trained, highly educated workforce. We have very smart people with exposure and experience to ways of doing business internationally and we have world class standards in terms of technology and development. We need to create our own indigenous startup companies and support them to get to an international level. Rather than continuing to solely rely on international investment.”

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