By providing proper risk assessment, Steady mobile app hopes to prevent falls common in older adults
This is one in a series of features on competitors in the 2017 Cozad New Venture competition, a program sponsored by the University of Illinois' Technology Entrepreneur Center that is designed to encourage students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, and customer development, and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Teams who make it to the final round of competition will have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, early stage investors and successful entrepreneurs who serve as judges. The judges will determine teams that will present their ventures at the finals event. Last year, these teams competed for nearly $220,000 in funding and in-kind prizes.
According to Professor Jacob Sosnoff, associate director of the Center on Health and Aging and Disability at the University of Illinois, falls are the leading cause of accidental death and injury in older adults. In fact, one out of three persons age 65 and over is expected to fall in the next year.
“Decades of research have demonstrated that falls can be minimized with targeted interventions,” Sosnoff said. “However the need for expensive equipment and clinical expertise prevents fall risk measurement from being effectively implemented. This result is a critical prevention gap and substandard treatment of fall risks.
To help fill this gap, Sosnoff is leading a startup designed to evaluate seniors for fall risk using mobile health technology - with the hopes of preventing falls before they occur. The team includes Doug Wajda, an assistant professor of exercise science at Cleveland State University, who holds a master’s degree in mechanical science and engineering and a PhD in kinesiology and community health from the University of Illinois.
The startup is developing an app, Steady, that will accurately assess fall risk and provide personalized suggestions on ways to minimize the risk. The assessment will be based on a series of questions regarding a patient’s health and living environment and progressive balance tasks. Steady™ leverages embedded sensors (e.g. accelerometers and gyroscopes) in the smartphone/tablet to objectively measure movement during clinically validated balance tasks. The information from the assessment is fed into a research validated algorithm generating a personalized fall risk score
“Despite about 50 years of fall prevention research, the death rate per capita from falls has increased,” Sosnoff said. “To me, it means that our current approach isn’t working as well as it could. Falls in themselves are preventable. We need personalized programs instead of a cookie cutter approach.” Part of the problem is most people don’t understand their risk. Every individual has a unique fall risk profile which requires an individualized prevention plan.
“A lot of the ways we treat falls right now are reactive,” Sosnoff said. “We have been stuck in the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ approach for years. We’re good at putting people back together again. We’re not good at preventing the fall. A lot of that comes down to the lack of personalized programs. Each of us has a different fall phenotype with unique risk factors and need a unique program targeting those factors.”
Steady combines decades of scientific research on fall risk factors with phone-based sensors and cloud analytics to quickly analyze and communicate an individual’s fall risk in an easy-to-understand format. Future iterations of Steady will provide individualized prevention programs to mitigate fall risk. The app will place measurement of fall risk in the hands of seniors and their caregivers for the first time.
It was Dr. Ruth Sosnoff, assistant director at the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Initiative on campus, who first suggested the app idea. “Our goal is to have the conversation prior to the fall, provide an individualized prevention plan, and put you in touch with someone who can help,” she said.
“In our first iteration we thought about an exercise program, but our feedback indicated most people don’t really want an exercise program,” said Ruth Sosnoff, who is an exercise physiologist currently enrolled in the professional MBA program at UI. She is the logistic mastermind for Steady. “They are, however, motivated to maintain their independence. With the help of a caregiver, we are providing a fall prevention assessment that is relatively inexpensive. It’s like Life Alert, only we’re trying to make it less likely you don’t ever have to push the button.”
Wajda has developed an algorithm, and the team used the I-Corps program for customer validation. They are continuing that phase by working with residents local retirement communities to test the app and find out what they would be willing to use.
The rest of the team includes Josh Ussiri, marketing forecast expert and a student in the U of I MBA program, and mobile health and exercise psychology expert Jason Fanning (PhD, kinesiology and community health ’16), who is developing the software.
The team is striving to garner endorsements from organizations like AARP, which has already honored Steady with an award. They have received proof-of-concept funding from the Office of Technology Management on campus and plan to participate in the National I-Corps program this summer. They estimate it would take $20,000 to produce a viable app.
“There is a misconception that having bad balance or walking slow or falling is just part of getting older, but it’s really not,” Sosnoff said. “There are simple things you can do to reduce your risk of falls and we are trying to play a vital role in that.”