BUSINESS INSIDER: Walking wisely: North Dakota entrepreneur selected as Techstar
When Peter Chamberlain found out his wife’s grandmother had fallen and wound up in the hospital, he knew his entrepreneurial mission had started.
“We don’t know how long she was on the floor because the gardener found her,” Chamberlain said. “She could have been there all day.”
He said falls are an extremely common story among the elderly. Falls are, in fact, the leading cause of injury and death among senior Americans, according to the National Council on Aging.
Chamberlain, who said he’s always liked to “start things,” has come up with a device called WalkWise, which attaches to walkers and then collects and reports data through an app. It alerts to such things as if a walker topples over or is not in use for an extended period of time. That way the user, if she or he fell, for instance, can get the help they might need quickly instead of waiting all day for help to arrive, like Chamberlain’s grandmother may have done.
For his work, Chamberlain, of Fargo, N.D., has been invited to join a popular tech program. He recently spoke with Prairie Business about Walkwise and his part in the Techstars Startup Accelerators program out of the Twin Cities.
Tell us about WalkWise.
We spend as a society $60 billion on fall-related costs. Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries in older adults. My wife’s grandmother’s fall got me thinking of two things: First, if she fell we should have known about it. In this technological age there is no reason why we shouldn’t have known about it, and if we did she could have gotten help a lot sooner. Second, why did she fall in the first place? The walker is the only prevention technology that exists to make sure falls don’t happen. So it got me thinking, why are we not tuned in to the walker? … Hopefully with WalkWise we’ll have better informed caregivers and families, we’ll be able to detect things like if the walker tips over or doesn’t move for a long period of time. … If it’s not being used, let’s make sure there’s some type of intervention. If they’re not using their walker, we want to know about it, we want to intervene. There are a lot of things packed into this simple walker attachment.
Is this a unique product?
We are the only company doing this. Our device and algorithms are patented. I started working on this in 2016. The first couple of years was really about building the product, because I had never done anything like this before. I had to research what the market was like, who was going to care about this? What I found out is that it’s our senior living communities. It took a lot of talking to people to realize that senior living communities – assisted living, independent centers – have a big financial interest in helping people stay healthy and off of the floor. What’s more, their customers are often the family members.
What have you learned about being a start-up?
Your main advantage is you can change very quickly. You have to be flexible. You can learn things very quickly and make changes very quickly, where as a larger company might not be able to change that quickly.
What are your thoughts about being the only North Dakota company invited to join the Techstars program?
I think is not so much about being the only one, but the fact that there is starting to be a real momentum of entrepreneurial efforts in North Dakota. … I don’t think it’s a reflection of me as much as it is a reflection of North Dakota; as people invest in companies … that leads to outcomes like this.
What will you be doing in the program?
We are actually right in the middle of it. We started in September and it goes until December. The first month, which we just got done with, was “Mentor Madness.” They introduced us to about 100 people that are in healthcare, entrepreneurship, all sorts of different areas that can really help us move our businesses. There are 10 of us in my group from all over the country, so it’s basically about networking. Techstars has a network of really successful entrepreneurs and investors, and having 20-minute meetings over the last month has really helped us hone in on our mission and our value proposition and to come out on the other side.
The goal is to come out on the other side with a clear path forward … the next demo day is in Minneapolis. Techstars also invests money in all of its companies. … There are 10 companies in our program, so this is specifically the United Healthcare Techstars Program. We have office space in Minneapolis.
What is your short-term goal?
We need to find the most innovative senior living organizations in the country and partner with them … to get as many seniors, as many families on board as we can. It does take an innovative organization to look at a new technology and say, ‘This could really help us with our mission.’ That’s not every company, certainly, and that’s fine; some companies are not willing to take that risk, if you will, some simply don’t have an eye for innovation. But it takes innovative thinkers and organizations to be the first movers to say, ‘Hey, this has real potential, it’s worked at other places, let’s give it a shot.’ And then we’ll be able to go to more markets and say, ‘Hey, these organizations have found great use with WalkWise, and here’s the evidence. We think you should consider adopting it.’”
What’s your long-term goal?
The long-term goal is to have WalkWise on every walker, everywhere. The fact is if you have a walker, you are a fall risk. That’s why you have a walker. Specifically I’m talking about people who use walkers for a long period of time … think about people who use a walker every day, who are dependent on it to maintain their independence. We need to know when something happens to them, but help them to be fit and to use their walkers.
Where do you see yourself in five years, 10 years?
To achieve the long-term goal we obviously need to grow personnel; we’re going to have to grow a larger team on both the technical and business side. We are going to need a team of people around the country to do insulation and customer support, so we’re going to need a lot more people and then hopefully working with a lot of different types of organizations. We can work with living centers, sure, but we also want to work with insurance companies who have an interest in keeping people healthy and out of the hospital … we want families who need this to have access to it … we want to be more than just a technology for senior living communities because there’s so many other types of aging. We need to expand the team, expand the reach, and get this to as many senior centers and families as possible.