Last September, the first Smart Ageing Prize was awarded to Activ84Health at a ceremony held at the AAL Forum in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The Belgian company won prize money of €50,000 for their Explorer platform (now rebranded as 'Memoride').
The idea that caught the judges' attention was born in the nursing home that co-founder Jan Smolders runs in Belgium, and was developed into a smart system that allows housebound individuals to cycle the world.
Jan realised that the inhabitants of his nursing home were looking at a wall while doing their exercises - hardly an inspiring activity - and it was this that motivated him to act. Teaming up with his brother Roel, then a health technology expert at the Flemish Institute of Technological Research, and IT-experts, Wannes and Jesse, from the University of Louvain, the team went on to develop the technology that offers older people who can no longer get out and about, a window on the world.
The first Smart Ageing Prize by the Active and Assisted Living (AAL) Programme, called for innovations in Internet of Things devices that empowered older adults to achieve the quality of life they aspire to, socially and independently. From 175 applications, 15 promising entries were selected as finalists who then received support and mentoring to produce detailed business plans. Five top finalists pitched their ideas at the AAL Forum in St. Gallen, Switzerland in September 2017.
A year after the ceremony, we interviewed Activ84Health CEO Roel Smolders and asked him to describe the opportunities and challenges that the prize had presented.
"First of all, the prize of €50,000 certainly was a big benefit for our company, as most start-ups struggle financially," he said. "We do have over 40 paying customers already, but it never hurts to get more budget. However, the international spotlight that was offered to us when we won the prize was even more important. All of a sudden, we weren't simply this ambitious start-up with a great idea, but we could affirm that, according to the AAL Programme, we had the most innovative technology for active and healthy ageing. This certainly opened doors.
"Moreover," he continued, "winning the award generated media attention in Belgium, and we were able to attract a new investor thanks to a newspaper article. But finally, the award also boosted our confidence. We had already won a couple of innovation awards in Belgium, but now we started to believe that the rest of Europe, and perhaps even the world, saw the added value of our Memoride Technology."
"The money that came with the prize was mostly spent on developing the translation platform," Roel said, "so Memoride is now available in Dutch, English, German, French and Swedish, and it takes virtually no time (apart from the translation of about 220 lines of text) to add a new language."
As for their future plans, Roel noted that: "Memoride is now at a point where it is ready for global implementation, so we are going to scale internationally. We currently have about 35 paying customers in Belgium and 5 in the Netherlands. These are typically nursing homes, hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
"We now have business partners in The Netherlands, Sweden and Austria, and we are in ongoing discussions with companies in Luxembourg, Switzerland and some other businesses who are interested in distributing our technology in other countries. I'd really love to get in contact with businesses in Portugal, Spain, France or Italy.
"Obviously, we also have some new and exciting updates in the software, which we will be launching soon, and at the same time we are looking at other markets, including travel and rehabilitation, to see what the possible applications could be there."
Using Google Streetview - connected to a stationary bike - cloud-based software, and touch screen controls, Memoride was designed to allow older people to explore familiar places from their past.
As well as stimulating memories, this activity prompts social interaction in the home, while at the same time providing a valuable exercise routine. Each user has an individual profile, which allows the platform to take into account personal physical and cognitive abilities.
Roel shared with us some unique emotional moments from the users’ experience: "During demonstrations, we often get very emotional responses, people in tears when they manage to visit places filled with memories. That is the unique aspect of Memoride, we can go virtually anywhere (as long as Google has pictures available), so people can really enjoy this unique and personalised experience.
"At that point the attention normally shifts from the physical activity to the reminiscence and cognitive aspect. The users will actively go looking for more memories, more locations that hold a special place in their minds and in their hearts."
"Perhaps the most important aspect, which we initially overlooked, was the storytelling," Roel continued. "Anyone that works with older people will tell you about the stories and memories that they have. Allowing them to go back to those specific locations gives them the fuel they need to share these stories. I believe this is the USP of our technology, and offers the greatest impact on their lives.
"Memoride is developed in such a way that it takes into account users' physical and cognitive capacities, so there are virtually no boundaries," Roel added. "Ι had a demonstration where a lady took me to the street where she used to live and started crying at the sight of her house. Later we biked to the café where her late husband went to play billiards, and where she had spent many of her Saturday evenings. She talked for more than 30 minutes about her late husband, and couldn't stop thanking me for the experience. Those are the moments that stick."
The second edition of the AAL Challenge Prize was announced this week at the AAL Forum 2017. We asked Roel to share some insights about his experience with potential applicants: "Don't start from technology, start from a real need in the ageing population," he said. "Technology should serve a purpose, it should have value and offer an experience for the end-user. First, try to understand that need, only then look at what technology you might use and how to implement it."
"Test from the first stages of your project onwards," he added. "When developing technology for aging individuals, user-centered design is essential, as they often have very different expectations and needs than what you and I might believe."
The second AAL Challenge Prize will launch in November 2017.
This blog was originally posted on the AAL website.
Photo credits: KU Leuven - Rob Stevens, Activ84Health