NYLP: Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new start-ups, businesses, and openings in the New York City area. I’m Hal Coopersmith, and stepping onto the Launch Pod, we have Kenneth Shinozuka, the founder of Safe Wander. Safe Wander is a health care technology for patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s to help them monitor when they wander around. Is that correct?
NYLP: Welcome to the podcast, Kenneth.
Kenneth: Thank you very much.
NYLP: So, first question. How old are you?
Kenneth: I’m 17 years old.
NYLP: And what is this technology?
Kenneth: This technology is something that alerts caregivers and loved ones whenever their patients… or sorry, that alerts caregivers, whenever their patients and loved ones wander. As soon as a patient leaves a bed or chair, a caregiver is alerted immediately at his or her own smartphone. And this is applicable, not only for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, but it’s also applicable for patients at fall risk. So, actually, a lot of people suffer from falls quite frequently, most common among the elderly. And this would be very useful for preventing them from falling as well.
NYLP: So you’re 17 years old. We’ve been speaking a little bit before this interview. I still can’t get over that. How did you come up with this idea?
Kenneth: My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s. He had Alzheimer’s actually for 12 years. And when I was four years old, my grandpa and I were actually walking in a park in Japan, when he suddenly got lost. And that was the moment that informed us that he had Alzheimer’s disease. And over the years, his condition got worse and worse, and in particular he frequently wandered out of bed at night.
My aunt, his primary caregiver, struggled to stay awake at night to keep an eye on him, and even then, often failed to catch him leaving the bed, actually. So I became very concerned about her well-being, as well as my grandfather’s safety, and I decided that I needed to create a solution. One night, during a Thanksgiving break in 2012, I saw my grandfather stepping out of the bed, and the moment his foot landed on the floor, I saw the solution to my family’s problem. I thought, “Why don’t I put a pressure sensor under the heel of my grandfather’s foot?” And the idea developed from there.
NYLP: How old were you at the time?
Kenneth: I was 14 at the time.
NYLP: So a lot of people think about a problem and think there should be some sort of solution, but very few people do try to come up with that solution. What motivated you, or in particular, why did you think, “I’m going to do this”?
Kenneth: Well I think what really motivated me was my deep personal connection to my grandfather. And he and I were actually very close while I was growing up. I grew up in a three-generation household, so I was often around my grandfather, and he and I actually bonded by singing to one another. And I was just very close to him throughout my entire life, and when I saw that he sometimes fell down on the bathroom floor whenever he wandered, and suffered accidents, I knew that there was a solution that I had to create in order to fix the problem.
NYLP: Do you have any background in terms of inventing other items?
Kenneth: Back when I was six years old, actually, an elderly family friend fell down in the bathroom and suffered severe injuries. And I became concerned about my own grandparents, and I decided to work on a smart bathroom system, which consists of sensors installed underneath the tiles of bathroom floors that would alert caregivers whenever their patients fell down in the bathroom.
And I’ve been interested in technology my entire life. My parents are actually civil engineering professors, and so when I was very young, I would go to their offices to tinker with the gadgets in their labs. And so from then, I was very interested in developing technologies. And I think my personal connection with my grandparents motivated me to apply that love to health care technology, in particular.
NYLP: So you were six years old and you made sensors in tiles?
Kenneth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was just a model at the time. I didn’t have the skills to actually develop it into a full-fledged prototype, but I think that experience sort of implanted in me, a desire to work on health care technology. So it all started from that moment, I think.
NYLP: So, you had this idea once you saw your grandfather. What steps did you need to take in order to come up with a prototype?
Kenneth: I realized that I faced three main challenges. The first was creating a wearable sensor that was thin and flexible enough to be worn comfortably on my grandfather’s foot and could also detect changes in pressure. Then another challenge was also designing a wearable wireless circuit that could essentially send out a signal to a caregiver’s smartphone. And the third was creating an app that would receive that alert, and transform the smartphone into a remote monitor for the caregiver. So these were all things that I had to work on, and I tapped into a number of different resources, studying literature extensively, reaching out to experts in the field, joining online tech forums, in order to overcome these challenges.
And it took over a year in order to develop my first prototype. And there were hundreds of challenges I faced along the way. And it was a very tough experience, considering the fact that I didn’t really have that much knowledge in those three areas. And so it was a huge learning curve, but it was also very fun at the same time, working on this technology, overcoming those problems.
NYLP: What were some of those challenges?
Kenneth: One of the challenges, for example, would be trying to connect my smartphone app to a sensor circuit. And I actually spent the entire summer of 2013, just working on that problem, and devoted many, many months. And it was very hard for me. There was one particular problem in my code that I just couldn’t seem to overcome, and…
NYLP: Which was what?
Kenneth: It was the fact that I couldn’t get the…essentially get the sensor circuit to transmit a signal to the smartphone, and for the smartphone to receive that signal. And so I just worked on that problem for months. And I remember I, at one point, was just about ready to give up, but then I heard my grandfather singing, and his voice by that time had sort of been muted to a whisper, and he hardly even remembered me at that point. But instinctively, I put my hands over his, and started singing along with him, much like he crooned lullabies to me many years ago, when I was much smaller. And at one point, his grip tightened and I knew that he still remembered me.
And I think that that really motivated me to continue working, because I realized that years of Alzheimer’s hadn’t eroded the bond that we shared. And I knew that I had to do something in order to fix the problem. And while I couldn’t reverse his condition, at the very least, I could keep him safe with my sensor. And so that sort of galvanized me to continue working.
NYLP: That’s incredible.
Kenneth: Thank you.
NYLP: How many hours a day were you working on this?
Kenneth: I was working at least, I think, two hours per day, sometimes as many as five hours per night. And I’d actually devote entire summers, entire holidays and weekends, just working on the sensor because I really wanted to be able to deliver a solution to my family’s problems.
NYLP: Entire summer, meaning all day during the summer?
Kenneth: All day, during the summer. Yeah.
NYLP: But you’re in high school now, correct?
Kenneth: Right, right. Yes.
NYLP: Where are you in high school?
Kenneth: I’m in high school at Horace Mann School, in the Bronx.
NYLP: And was it hard to balance your schoolwork with coming up with this sensor?
Kenneth: It was definitely a juggling act. And it was hard to manage all those things at the same time. And I also have several other extracurricular activities that I’m heavily involved in. So it was hard to balance all of those things at the same time, but I think that my connection to my grandfather, again, really motivated me to continue working, even in spite of all these obstacles.
NYLP: And so you started this when you were how old?
Kenneth: I started this when I was 14.
NYLP: And how long did it take for you to come up with the final product?
Kenneth: Well, it’s been about three years since that experience. Since that moment, when I first realized I could create a solution for my grandfather’s problems. And after I tested my sensor on my grandfather for a period of about a year, I decided that I wanted to test my sensor at a number of care facilities. And I realized that the sock sensor actually worked very well on a number of patients who wanted to wear socks to sleep. But there were also a lot of dementia patients that didn’t want to wear anything on their feet, so they would take off anything that you put on them.
And I realized that there was a need to create a non-sock solution. And I decided that I wanted to create a button sensor, essentially, that detects wandering by measuring changes in the patient’s body position. And I also invented a one-twist attachment method that actually attaches the button sensor very securely, onto the patient’s clothing. And I worked on that for about the past…for about one year, since last summer. And currently I plan on releasing that product into the market next month, in November.
NYLP: How does all the technology work together?
Kenneth: There are essentially three components in the initial sock sensor. The first was the pressure sensor that would be worn on the patient’s foot, then there was also the sensor circuit that would send out a signal to the caregiver’s smartphone, and then the smartphone app, which would receive that signal. And so those were the three components inside the initial system. But now with the button sensor, we have an additional component, which is a range extender or gateway, as we call it, that’s plugged into an outlet next to the patient’s bed. And what that does, it essentially takes the Bluetooth signal transmitted by the sensor, and then relays it to a server on the Cloud. And that enables a caregiver to receive an alert, no matter where he or she is so they can monitor patients, wherever the caregivers are. And so that’s one additional component that I’ve added to the system since my initial idea.
NYLP: And with the button sensor, that’s based off of motion?
NYLP: Motion detector is in the button?
Kenneth: Essentially, yeah. Exactly. It’s detecting changes in body position.
NYLP: And I’m looking at the button sensor right now. It’s about the size of a quarter.
NYLP: And in your tests, all the patients have found this very comfortable to wear?
Kenneth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually when I was testing it at several care facilities over the summer, none of the patients took off the sensor. And so none of them were actually able to find a way to take off the sensor, once it was attached securely, onto their clothes, which is a very good sign for us because it demonstrated to us that this attachment method was really secure.
NYLP: And so the button sensor is the main technology? It’s no longer about the sock sensor anymore.
Kenneth: Right. It’s no longer about the socks. Although the sock sensor will still be made available to whoever wants to have it, the button sensor will be the sensor that is marketed. Yes.
NYLP: And a little bit of background about Alzheimer’s. How many people are afflicted with Alzheimer’s?
Kenneth: There are 5.3 million Alzheimer’s patients in just the United States. And there are over 44 million dementia patients worldwide. It’s estimated that about 60% of those patients wander. And I also mentioned earlier, that a lot of elderly people suffer from fall risks, and this sensor might also be applicable to them because it can alert caregivers whenever they’re about to fall. And one in three seniors actually suffer from fall risk. And so, this is a huge problem. And I think that the sensor could solve both.
NYLP: Did you have any help in terms of inventing this?
Kenneth: Yeah. I did have some help from mentors, who were able to guide me along the way. I mostly worked on this idea independently, though, because I wanted to create a solution for my grandparents…working entirely on my own, using my own skill sets and learning things along the way. And I think that was part of what made the project so challenging, was because I didn’t have any of the knowledge required beforehand, so I didn’t know how to make sensors, or code smartphone apps, before working on this sensor. And so it was a wonderful learning experience, and I got to learn a lot.
NYLP: And this has been an incredible journey for you. You’ve been talking about that.
NYLP: How has that been?
Kenneth: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a wonderful journey. And back when I started working on the sensor in 2012, I didn’t really anticipate that I would receive a lot of recognition for it. I thought that I was just creating a solution for my family’s problems. And one day, I was encouraged by a friend to apply to the Google Science Fair. And I didn’t really think that I would have much of a chance, but I applied anyway.
I spent just a weekend, quickly filling out the application forms, and didn’t really think that it would go anywhere. And then I was notified actually that I had won one of the top prizes at the Google Science Fair later in August 2014. And so that was a huge shock to me, because I really hadn’t anticipated that I would receive any award or any recognition for this device.
So that was beyond my wildest expectations, and I was just absolutely overwhelmed, actually, because I really hadn’t anticipated any of this. And then from there, everything kicked off. I was invited to give a TED Talk in November of last year. I was also featured in a segment on NBC Nightly News. I got to meet President Obama, when traveling to the White House Science Fair, March of this year. I also got to meet with a lot of congressional leaders, and give a talk in international stages, like in the Royal Society of Medicine.
So this has really been a huge experience, and it’s been a blast. I think that I’m really lucky to have had this experience, knowing that I wasn’t really anticipating any of this. It’s almost hard sometimes to convince myself that all of this really did happen. So it’s just an amazing experience.
NYLP: What did it feel like to win a prize in the Google Science Fair?
Kenneth: It was an incredible experience. I remember the moment when I was told by Mariette DiChristina, who is the Editor in Chief of Scientific America, and who gave me the award, I remember the moment when she told me that I had won. And I had to pinch myself. “Is this really true? Did I actually win the award?” And that moment just, completely shocked me, because I really didn’t think that I had a single iota of a chance of winning. So this was just absolutely unexpected, unanticipated. And again, I really think that I’m lucky to have been able to have had this experience.
NYLP: And the White House must’ve been pretty cool.
Kenneth: Yeah. The White House was also a really cool event. And that was also another surprise. I didn’t anticipate that I was going to be going to the White House, either. And I was able to meet with President Obama. I got a tour of the White House. And also was able to meet with other congressional leaders. And also, got to meet Bill Nye the Science Guy who was sort of my Science idol growing up. I remember I would watch him on TV to learn about science when I was in seventh or eighth grade. And that was again, another one of those unanticipated, just, serendipitous things.
NYLP: What did Bill Nye say?
Kenneth: He actually complimented the sensor, which was really neat. And we also talked a lot about his own show back in the ’90s, when he was producing his own TV show. And we also got to talk about a lot of other things that were happening, with science in the current day. And that was, again, an awesome experience.
NYLP: What’s the most fun thing that has been on this journey?
Kenneth: A lot of people ask me that question. They think that the most fun thing might be giving the TED Talk, for example, or appearing on TV. I think, though, that the most fun aspect of this entire journey has been probably talking to a group of Cub Scouts about my sensor, and encouraging them to do STEM research. I’m actually a Boy Scout, so sometimes I do talk to Cub and Boy Scouts in order to encourage them to pursue STEM in their education and in their careers. And I remember talking to the Cub Scouts about the sensor, and they asked such wonderful questions. And they were all so engaged in the sensor. And I remember actually after that experience, a group of Scouts had come up to me and asked me if I could help them create a tremor monitoring device for Parkinson’s patients. And I smiled. What could be more rewarding than encouraging others to be problem solvers? And so, I think that was probably the most rewarding aspect of the entire journey so far.
NYLP: And so have you been helping with the tremor monitoring?
Kenneth: Yeah, yeah. A little bit. I’ve been helping to advise some Cub Scouts on that.
NYLP: How has that been going?
Kenneth: That’s been going very well.
NYLP: So how did you decide to turn all this into a business, once you came up with the invention?
Kenneth: So after I came up with the invention, I did a little bit of research, and I found out that there was a huge need for this kind of a device. A lot of the currently existing technologies for detecting wandering and also detecting falls are not really that reliable, like the ones that my aunt was using prior to the invention of this sensor. And I realized that a lot of patients could benefit from this. As I mentioned earlier, 5.2 million Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in the United States, 60% of them wander, one in 3 seniors suffer from fall risks. And so I was motivated by this overwhelming societal need to deliver my solution to patients beyond my own grandfather so that I could help other families too.
NYLP: What are the other products that are out there?
Kenneth: There are other products out there that do not alert care givers at their smartphones whenever patients wander, but they do help to detect wandering of patients. For example, some of them are floor mats that are placed next to the patient’s bed that would alert the caregiver at a separate monitoring device whenever the patient left the bed. Or you could have a pull cord, for example. Essentially, a cord that’s attached to the patient’s clothes that would come apart whenever a patient left the bed, and then send out an alert. The problem with those devices, though, is that they’re generally unreliable and bulky, and they also frighten the patient. And whenever the patient gets out of the bed, there’s a very loud alert that wakes up not only the patient, but also the entire facility. And so those are a bit obnoxious, too.
NYLP: Because the alert’s in the room?
Kenneth: Exactly. Because the alert’s inside the same room as the patient. And also, you would need multiple monitoring devices to track multiple patients. Whereas with this Safe Wander technology, you can monitor all of your patients from just one phone.
NYLP: How many patients can this monitor at one time?
Kenneth: An infinite number of patients, technically.
NYLP: So if the patient is wandering, an alarm goes off on the smart phone?
Kenneth: Exactly. Yes. So as soon as the patient steps out of the bed or as soon as the patient starts rising from the bed, then an alert will immediately be sent to the caregiver’s smartphone.
NYLP: And can multiple people monitor the same patient?
Kenneth: Yes. Yes.
NYLP: How does that work?
Kenneth: You would all be signed into the same caregiver’s account, essentially. And from there you can actually monitor multiple patients at the same time.
NYLP: And this is possible because it’s shared over the Internet?
Kenneth: Yes. Yes. In part, because of that.
NYLP: And so all you need is a wireless connection in the patient’s household?
Kenneth: That’s precisely correct, yes. All you need is some sort of Wi-Fi connection in the patient’s home.
NYLP: How hard is it to program the sensor to the Wi-Fi?
Kenneth: It’s very simple. It’s actually only required to press a couple of buttons, and then you’ve essentially gone and connected.
NYLP: How does that work?
Kenneth: So you essentially pair the gateway, which is the range extender, to the Wi-Fi network in your home. And then once that’s done, the gateway has automatically established a connection with a server on the Cloud.
NYLP: And you developed all this technology yourself?
Kenneth: Yes, again, it was a huge learning curve and there were a lot of things that I had to learn that I didn’t know before. And I had to learn all of this, and again, that was also a really amazing experience.
NYLP: And are you looking to target individuals or health care institutions?
Kenneth: I’m looking at both. Definitely. I think mostly, I’ll start with individuals at first, and then move on to larger facilities. But I’m open to selling to both.
NYLP: Where is the product made?
Kenneth: The product is actually assembled in home, and in my home, in my apartment, actually.
NYLP: In your apartment?
Kenneth: In my apartment.
NYLP: By you?
Kenneth: In my own bedroom, yes. And it’s going to be manufactured in different parts of the U.S. And one part, the printed circuit board of the sensor will be manufactured internationally.
NYLP: What are you going to price the product at?
Kenneth: At $250. $249, actually, to be exact.
NYLP: How did you come up with that?
Kenneth: I came up with that number, knowing that a lot of other wandering detection devices, that were less reliable were priced at a higher price, so they would be at around, maybe $300, the best ones. And I wanted to create a solution that was more inexpensive for care givers and yet, was also competitive with the other devices. So I settled on $250.
NYLP: What’s included in that value for $250?
Kenneth: So in addition to the very inexpensive price for the sensor, the technology also carries with it a huge value that a lot of other sensor technologies, or technologies in general for detection don’t have. For example, you can monitor multiple patients with just one mobile device. Whether it be a smart phone, a tablet, or even an iPod Touch. The alert also rings on the caregiver’s mobile device, rather than on the patient’s so that it doesn’t frighten patients whenever they leave the bed at night.
The battery’s also replaceable, so after the sensor runs out of its battery life, after a year of nightly usage, then you can replace the battery, and it essentially lasts for a lifetime, pretty much. And the sensor also has a lot of other unique features and benefits, beyond that. For example, it allows you to monitor patients, no matter where you are. So even if your patient is miles and miles away from the caregiver, the caregiver can still receive an alert whenever the patient wanders.
In addition, the sensor keeps a record of the frequency of the patient’s wandering. For example, it will tell you how many times the patient left the bed on one particular night, or on another night. And that’s really useful for regulating patients’ medication dosages. So a lot of doctors prescribe medication to prevent patients from being agitated at night. So they could use this data to determine whether or not they should give more medicine, because their patients are more agitated on one particular night, or on another particular night.
NYLP: Do you have a patent?
Kenneth: Yeah. I do have a patent on the pressure sensor device, and I’m currently working on getting a patent, it’s patent pending the button sensor.
NYLP: And have you tested the product out?
Kenneth: Yeah. I’ve tested the product in several places. I’ve tested the sensors on my grandfather for a period of one year, and they had a 100% success rate in detecting the known cases of his wandering. I’ve also tested my devices at separate care facilities in Southern California over the past two summers, and they’ve so far had very good results, in terms of keeping patients safe, and also detecting their wandering and preventing falls.
NYLP: How many patients were you testing it on?
Kenneth: I’ve tested on about, I would say, 30 patients, so far, in total.
NYLP: How long was the test in the health care facility?
Kenneth: The tests were about one month each, on the care facilities. And then for, on my grandfather, they lasted about a year.
NYLP: At the health care facility, was the person who was the main caregiver, how many patients were they able to monitor?
Kenneth: They were able to monitor as many patients as they wanted, actually. They monitored four patients on their smartphone at a time. But they could actually monitor even more than that, if they wished. It was only that they had that many patients in that particular room or facility.
NYLP: What are your goals for this product?
Kenneth: I think the ultimate goal is to be able to deliver this technology to the millions of wandering patients out there, and also the millions of seniors who have fall risk. And I really hope that this technology could be a solution for the families that are burdened with the tremendous stress my aunt had to go through, and who have to look after a patient that frequently wanders or frequently falls out of bed at night.
And I think that this technology could really be applicable for a huge number of patients. And it also has a number of applications too, beyond just the wandering of patients. For example, I realized that you might be able to develop my pressure sensor into a monitor that detects the walking characteristics of elderly patients, which is frequently correlated with the state of their own health. And so, there are many other technologies that could be built upon from this platform.
NYLP: So you’re a senior in high school. Are you going to continue this in college?
Kenneth: Yeah. I think so. Definitely. I’m very enthusiastic about continuing this into college.
NYLP: What do you want to study in college?
Kenneth: I think Neuroscience is something that I’m very interested in. I was very close to my grandfather, and I saw the tremendous pain that Alzheimer’s exacted on not only him, but also my entire family. Alzheimer’s is one of those rare diseases that affects everybody around the patient because you lose the connection that you once had with the Alzheimer’s patient. And I really want to be able to prevent future generations from experiencing the same pain that my family went through, which is why I’m really interested in looking into Neuroscience, in order to potentially develop cures for Alzheimer’s.
NYLP: Do you have any other ideas for businesses or any other inventions you want to create?
Kenneth: Yeah. I have actually been able to realize that there are a number of other problems suffered by patients at care facilities. So when I was volunteering there and working with caregivers and patients, I realized there were a lot of other problems too that could be solved with simple sensor technologies. Whether or not they’re wearable sensors or other kinds of technologies, but I think that in the future, I’m interested in developing a pipeline of technologies to be able to solve these problems.
NYLP: How do people find out more about you and Safe Wander?
Kenneth: They can go to my website, www.safewander.com. That’s S-A-F-E-W-A-N-D-E-R.com, and they can learn more about the sensor, and they can also see some of the segments on which I was featured and some of my talks about the sensor.
NYLP: Well, Kenneth Shinozuka, your invention is incredibly impressive. I really hope that it helps so many people in this world. I think it’s a wonderful mission that you have. I think that you’re an incredible gentleman. Thank you for stepping onto the New York Launch Pod, and sharing your time with us.
Kenneth: Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.
NYLP: And if you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod, you can visit nylaunchpod.com or follow us in social media @nylaunchpod.SHARE THIS: