In 2015, Professor Margot Brereton, from QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, and her computer interaction research group, wanted to improve the problem of social isolation in the elderly. Margot, herself, had an elderly parent living in another country, so shared this concern common to many families where elderly parents or friends are isolated. She wanted to know that her parent was safe, and to continue to foster a relationship without intruding at inconvenient times.

Margot’s idea was to develop an electronic device for the elderly that would monitor their use of an everyday appliance, like a kettle. When the person was active, the connected devices would glow, ensuring peace of mind for loved ones separated by distance. Should the connected device remain inactive for an unusual period of time, or a daily routine be broken, then the device would send an alert.

Unique in its combination of simplified communication and passive monitoring, it would not require the elderly person to learn new habits or behaviours, removing the difficulties that older people can have in adopting and using new communication technologies. The device aimed to make communication simple for the elderly, basic visual communication and handwriting, built around a ‘smart device.’

The initial proof-of-concept, called the ‘Connected kettle’ led to Professor Margot Brereton publishing a paper in 2015 on her research and an invitation to present at a conference.

The potential commercial impact for the Kettle is aged people who are geographically separated from their adult children, including those with early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s who want to remain in their homes for as long as possible. “In Australia over 340 000 people have dementia and over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. By 2050 over 730 000 Australians are projected to have dementia,” states Margot.

Margot contacted QUT bluebox in 2016 to enquire about patenting the innovation. The technology was put forward as an opportunity in the first Founder Fuse held by QUT bluebox Chief Entrepreneur in Residence, Dr Tim McTaggart.

Emerging from this initiative aimed at connecting QUT research with entrepreneurs, the ‘Connected Kettle’ trading as Conpago was licenced to QUT graduates, Marley Brown (business management & civil engineering) and Mackenzie Jackson (design and architecture).

Mackenzie Jackson has a keen interest in reducing social isolation and loneliness in the elderly and says, “when the technology is in use, the connected devices will glow… seeing that warm glowing light to let your know your loved ones are active sends the same chemical reaction in the brain as receiving a message.”

Mackenzie also explains that the “majority of medical alert pendants fail as they are easily forgotten or lost. Independent studies have concluded that the average time an elderly person spends on the floor following a fall is 15 hours.”

“This makes our project imperative because it not only has the potential to allow seniors to remain in their homes longer but also has the ability to save lives through the early passive detection of emergencies.”

Marley Brown says the team went on in 2016 to participate in the QUT accelerator program powered by QUT bluebox: “an awesome three months, learning a lot about business and start-ups,” and were awarded $25 000 in proof-of-concept investment by QUT bluebox for user trials and prototype development.

“We engaged a local human-computer interaction design firm and a local engineering firm to help develop design, electronics and printed circuit boards (PCBs)” said Marley, “then we set about collaborating with eleven occupational therapists as well as the Occupational Therapy Department at the Mater Hospital.”

The team further connected with two large age-care providers, including Bally Care in South East Queensland, to perform user-testing of the prototype to find out the Conpago’s effectiveness with elderly users.

They discovered the need for the product to monitor hundreds of remote connections simultaneously so that age-care providers could also facilitate the role initially identified for family and friends.

Marley found that “it’s very dynamic, conducting user testing. The most recent testing we conducted was with a group of dementia sufferers – all over 90 years of age. We plugged in a kettle and told them to make a cup of tea and the Conpago operated seamlessly.”

“What happens when they turn on the kettle, is that it will check in the elderly person remotely and also read out calendar events and any messages that have come through. They don’t need to operate the device for it to perform the core functions, but what we’re hoping is that by using the kettle, and by the Conpago responding, that over time they will begin interacting with it.”

The team also engaged with a company called Lifelink, specialists in transforming patient engagement using conversational technology, to get feedback on the prototypes.

Reflecting on the process, Marley said “one of the big things with this start-up was keeping the scope narrow.” He recalled, “the design-thinking course that we did with QUT bluebox, and learning the Double Diamond method – you start with a point, an idea, and as you build on it, the scope starts to broaden and then you narrow it back in and you focus your innovation down to the core functionality.“

Marley and Mackenzie have recently completed the second generation design, making the Conpago ready for mass manufacturing and distribution to potential clients: aged-care providers and families with isolated elderly.

“The Conpago has received a really good response,” said Marley, who is currently seeking a resourcing partnership to enable production of commercial-ready products for the market.

QUT bluebox assistance

  • IP strategy
  • Founder Fuse participants
  • Licensed the technology to Conpago
  • Accelerator program participants
  • Proof-of-concept & funding
  • Commercialisation and business strategy