OnKol Wants to Help Grandma Join the Internet of Things Movement

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

As investors and corporations pour millions of dollars into connected-home devices, tech companies have no shortage of ideas—from smart thermostats and home security systems to data-collecting toothbrushes and a refrigerator that sends alerts when the milk is almost out.

But while most of these “Internet of things” products are aimed at young tech-savvy adults or parents with kids, Milwaukee-based OnKol is hoping to tackle a different market: aging parents and their children.

“The adoption rates for new technology in the elderly is terrible, and it always has been,” says OnKol CEO Erich Jacobs.

His elderly mother, for example, complained when family members replaced her television remote with a new one from a different brand, even though all the buttons were in the same place. And although some seniors carry smartphones these days, they might only use the devices to make calls or send the occasional text message, Jacobs says.

Safe to say, they’re probably not tweeting or posting photos of their dinner on Instagram.

OnKol (pronounced “on call”) is hoping to overcome that generation gap with a box-shaped device, smaller than a typical desktop printer, that connects to virtually any Bluetooth-enabled product, tying many home and health-monitoring devices together.

OnKol thinks the device is simple enough for grandma or grandpa to use without frustration, yet sophisticated enough to provide family members with just the right amount of information they need to feel peace of mind.

“Our number one goal is we don’t want to impose change on grandma,” Jacobs says.

That balance will be crucial if OnKol is going to have a chance of succeeding. The market for hardware startups catering to the elderly will likely get more crowded in the next few years, particularly as smartphones become more ubiquitous for all generations, says Micah Rosenbloom of seed fund Founder Collective, which has invested in several Internet of things startups.

The startups that will likely win in this emerging market, Rosenbloom says, will make products that are intuitive and easy for seniors to use—and cool enough to make a young San Francisco techie jealous of grandpa’s new gadget.

“Design and ease of use and aesthetics are right up there with business model and other aspects of evaluating a product or a company,” Rosenbloom says.

To help make a slick, visually appealing device, OnKol turned to Allenton, WI-based product design company Brooks Stevens, known for designing the Oscar Mayer “Wienermobile,” the Miller Brewing corporate logo, and the front fender for the 1949 Harley-Davidson Hydraglide.

OnKol says seniors can set up its base station right out of the box with minimal guidance, even if family members live far away and have to walk mom or dad through the steps over the phone. Meanwhile, the more tech-savvy relatives can go online and configure the type of information they want the OnKol device to send them, how often they want to receive updates, and whether they want updates in an e-mail, text message, or some other format.

So what can the OnKol system do? First, the base station can collect and share data from third-party health devices like glucose meters, blood pressure cuffs, and heart-rate monitors. Users can program the device to remind them to take medications with an announcement through the base station’s speakers, and it can notify family members if the senior misses a dosage.

If a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector goes off, the OnKol device can send out text messages or e-mails. Wireless motion sensors can tell whether someone is getting up more frequently than normal in the middle of the night. The system also has a caller identification function to keep family members apprised of who is calling their relatives, helping them screen for telemarketers, known scammers, and other unwanted callers.

In addition, the OnKol system comes with an electronic pendant that has a button for emergencies and can be worn like a watch. This is similar to Life Alert devices, but with a key difference. While Life Alert automatically sends a distress signal to a call center that can then alert emergency responders, OnKol’s pendant will first notify designated family members. Users can set the device to alert an emergency call center or call an ambulance if a family member doesn’t respond within a certain time.

That’s important, OnKol says, because sometimes … Next Page »

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  • LastOneStanding

    I hear OnKol was at the CES show 2015 and a Wisconsin Company at that…..great I wish OnKol the best and hope it will be very successful. I may just need your app someday down the road. Also heard an afternoon drive time talk show host putting in a good word on a Wisconsin start up company. Good luck.