Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Jean Anne Booth, founder and CEO of UnaliWear, maker of the Kanega Watch for seniors, photo by John Davidson.

Jean Anne Booth, founder and CEO of UnaliWear, maker of the Kanega Watch for seniors, photo by John Davidson.

Joan Hall worked as a model most of her life.

Now she’s 81 and lives independently in San Antonio.

Her daughter, Jean Anne Booth, who lives in Austin, wanted to keep tabs on her mom and make sure she is ok but her mom refused to wear one of those elder alert buttons.

“They’re just plain ugly,” Hall told her daughter.

And those emergency response help buttons are socially stigmatizing and limits people to their homes, she said.

That’s when Jean Anne Booth, an engineer and serial entrepreneur, decided to come up with a better solution. She left retirement to start Austin-based UnaliWear, maker of the Kanega watch for seniors. Booth sold her last company to Texas Instruments and the one before that to Apple.

“I wanted to build something that my mother and I both would be willing to wear to remain safe as we age,” Booth said.

Prototypes of the Kanega watch. Photo courtesy of UnaliWear

Prototypes of the Kanega watch. Photo courtesy of UnaliWear

For the past few years, Booth has been working with a small team of engineers to create prototypes of a senior alert watch. And she’s been conducting focus groups. She created a classically styled watch that doesn’t require a smartphone to operate. Now they’re ready to begin a beta trial with the product, called the Kanega watch. It has built-in cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS capabilities. It also has an accelerometer for fall detection, and continuous speech to provide an active medical alert that works anywhere, in combination with data-driven artificial intelligence that learns the wearer’s lifestyle.

“We build the cell phone into the watch because less than 10 percent of seniors 75 and older have smartphones,” Booth said.

The Austin-based startup, previously known as LifeAssist, changed its name to UnaliWear because “Unalii” is the Cherokee word for “friend,” Booth said. And “Kanega” means speak, so were the “friend who speaks to you,” she said.

Focus groups have also called the Kanega watch an “OnStar for Seniors.” The watch’s built in voice recognition software responds to the name that the owner gives it and operates on voice commands instead of buttons. Booth’s mom named her watch “Fred Astaire.” It has all the features of a regular watch including time and date features in large print. The watch can also let a senior live an active lifestyle because it goes wherever they go and it works around the clock, Booth said. If the person wearing the watch has an accident, the watch monitors activity so it can call operators for help.

UnaliWear recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign. The company raised $110,000, 10 percent above its goal, from 306 backers.

The response to UnaliWear’s Kickstarter campaign shows a demand exists for easy to use monitoring devices for older adults. In fact, a Nielsen Co. report on aging last year showed the number one concern among older adults is about losing self-reliance to care for basic needs.

For a long time, the wearables market seemed to ignore the aging population. They created exercise monitors and other devices to increase fitness and health. But it wasn’t until recently wearables aimed at seniors began to appear.

Today, the Kanega watch faces competition from companies like Lively, Evermind and BeClose. The companies generally charge $50 to $300 for the device and then monthly monitoring fees starting at around $30 a month.

The market for monitoring devices for seniors is $1.5 billion annually in the U.S. at least, said Laurie Orlov, an aging in place expert and a longtime technology veteran and analyst.

“Consider that 46 percent of women aged 75 and up live alone – they would like to feel safe at home and when they are out and about,” Orlov said.

And many seniors take multiple prescription medications that can lead to confusion and other side effects if taken incorrectly, Booth said. So the ability to monitor medications is a huge benefit to the Kanega watch, she said.

UnaliWear’s Kanega watch is still in beta testing and isn’t yet available on the mass market. Those supporters who pledged in the Kickstarter campaign will get the first devices.

“We’ve recently built our fifth prototype,” Booth said. “We’re doing a friends and family test. That’s where we are today.”

UnaliWear is testing one more prototype and expects to be in the market in 2016, she said. The watch costs $299 for the device with activation fee and $35 to $85 a month in monitoring fees.

So far, Booth has raised just $1.1 million in seed stage funding. All of her marketing has been through the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. And she was recently featured in a Time Magazine article on smartwatches for seniors.

“What we’re building works,” Booth said. “We’re allowing seniors to have independence with dignity.”