inCONVERSATION with Senecto

When Innovation Goes Back to Basics to Bring People Together

Being innovative isn’t always about using the latest technology, but the right technology. Sometimes, it takes the most innovative minds to make the complicated straightforward, especially when the people who will be using your product need to keep things simple.

This has certainly been the case for Evesham-based Senecto – a business built around a common need to improve communications with elderly people who are lonely, socially isolated and may have early stages of dementia.

Dementia has a huge personal impact on families and Senecto was born from personal experience, to develop a solution that would connect elderly people, who would otherwise have been socially isolated, with their families.

This solution is called Amba. This communication system has been specifically designed for users who are isolated or may have dementia and is intended to keep families in touch between physical visits. It enables users to organise their days more efficiently and communicate with family, friends and carers. To appeal to the older generation, it has even been developed with retro styling and realistic mechanical sounds.

Fighting against the tide of advancing technology to develop a product simple enough to be used by elderly people with dementia wasn’t easy, as Senecto Operations Director Steve Arthington explains:

“We couldn’t use an existing solution, as we didn’t want anything that would send messages which might confuse the user. My Dad’s never had a computer, so to give him one now with a VOIP solution would be out of the question.”

Developing Amba would also be challenging because communication by text or phone simply isn’t enough.

“It’s easy to text someone, but it’s not easy to know from their response how they are really feeling. It’s a familiar experience to have a parent play down the effects of a recent tumble, or bout of illness, but if you could actually see them, you could gauge for yourself. This isn’t always possible in our day to day lives.”

“Just having a phone call with elderly relatives, where they always say ‘oh I’m ok, don’t worry about me’, isn’t enough. You need to see their face, assess their wellbeing, judge by their body language."

“Amba was developed to provide a solution that negates distance and instead focuses on using modern technology to bring families together visually, at times in between when they can actually visit.”

Amba has been created with an easy to use touch screen, featuring photos of family members and carers. The user simply presses the photo to initiate a video call. The communication system also features an organiser, which includes diary reminders for appointments or taking medication, and can also tell you the weather and time of day – to keep everything all in one place.

It isn’t just the fact that the product itself aids memory and boosts attention (Aids Memory + Boosts Attention = Amba), it’s that it makes people talk:

Amba encourages families to engage. When the elderly person has an appointment, such as lunch with a friend, it notifies the family members that they have made this appointment which can then lead to a video call to find out who they are having lunch with, where they are going and how they are getting there. This then allows the family member to update any necessary details, for example to remind their relative to be ready for a taxi that has been booked. As Steve says:

“All of a sudden you are having a conversation, that is relevant to them, that they are happy to talk about, at a time when there is something to talk about.“

“When I used to telephone my Dad, he wasn’t interested in what I was doing in business, travelling around the country or my work for charity. After about five minutes we would run out of subjects to talk about. You feel guilty as you are too far away, you know he is lonely but it’s a real problem.”

Hence, the need for Amba arose, to keep families in regular contact, but more importantly to give them something to talk about.

“When we had a spell of hot weather earlier in the year, we were all sat in Worcester in the garden having a barbecue, so I got the laptop out, video called my Dad, who is 150 miles away in Manchester, and he was able to share this with us. For about an hour and a half, we all sat around chatting, with Dad on the Amba and us sitting outside.”

Funding our Futures

The UK is in the grips of a care crisis. 3.64 million people over the age of 65 are living alone and yet in the last five years, £160 million has been cut from the social care budget for older people1. With only one in seven of us saving for our retirement, and the impact of Alzheimer’s expected to increase as we all live longer, families and the government are faced with the very real threat of how to fund our future care.

“They are trying to keep people at home longer. Care homes are incredibly expensive, so if someone can stay at home for even a week longer, it can save their family or local authority up to £2000.”

“The biggest problem with care homes, however, is that people are coming and going, faces are changing. You are moving around all the time and forgetting where you are and becoming disorientated."

“We knew that if we could develop a solution that would suit our families and enable our elderly relatives to be as independent as possible for as long as possible, we could also help tens of thousands of other families.”

Working with WINN

When Worcestershire Business Central introduced Steve to WINN, he had no idea what to expect, but within weeks of attending a WINN Wednesday event, Senecto were in a much more fluid position.

At the WINN Wednesday event Steve heard from a speaker who covered tax credits. Whilst he already knew that these could be claimed against Research and Development costs, Steve wasn’t aware it could be done so quickly. Within eight weeks of attending the conference, Senecto received a cheque for £125,000, and have another sum due shortly.

Many SMEs that develop new products may be eligible to claim financial rewards for their innovation, product and service research and development. These tax credits provide a welcome recompense for the costly and time-consuming research and development that goes into the creation of new products such as Amba.

Not only did connecting with WINN enable Steve to claim tax credits, but it also introduced him to a market researcher who provided advice on rolling out the product globally, which has since led to enquiries from the US and Finland. In addition to this, when Senecto were having problems with their software developer, WINN helped provide a line of enquiry that led to them finding a new local provider.

“Working with WINN and the Worcestershire Business Central has really helped us to get a product that is fit for purpose. The whole journey has been a dichotomy of great moments and difficult challenges, but in the end, we’re in a lovely position.”

So, what’s next for Senecto and Amba?

There are a million people in the UK who have been diagnosed with Dementia, but there are also another million who haven’t been diagnosed.

With the burden on families, the NHS and the care industry all set to increase, solutions such as Amba will surely be welcomed, as Steve points out:

“Imagine a care home night shift, where you have four or five bells ringing at the same time – where do you go first? How do you know what each resident needs? Having something like Amba not only helps care homes to be more transparent in the care they are providing, but it also enables them to quickly see who has hurt themselves and who is just struggling to operate the television, so they can more accurately prioritise.”

The next step for Senecto is developing a B2B solution for care homes and the NHS, but the challenge here will be getting the right exposure.

“Everyone we have shown the product to so far has liked it. We built this product based on our own family experience and didn’t really consult many people in the development phase. So, when we showed it to the Association of Dementia Research Studies at Worcester University, they had no recommendations, it was a great feeling.”

Words of Wisdom

Knowing that you can’t convert an elderly person who has never used technology, Steve has a few words of wisdom for fellow innovators

“Don’t let people buy what you have to sell, create a product that they really need. Develop it to fit that need and people will use it.”

More information on Amba can be found on the Senecto website

1 – Age UK

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WINN brings innovators together, acting as a catalyst to create connections and collaborations across the diverse business landscape of Worcestershire.

Our belief is that great things can happen when people get together.

WINN is a Worcestershire Innovation Programme formed by Worcestershire County Council and the Worcestershire LEP