CareBeacon looks to be Moves for mPERS

By: Jonah Comstock | Mar 10, 2014        

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CareBeaconCareBeacon, a startup based in Los Angeles, is offering a low-cost mobile personal emergency response system (mPERS) in the form of an iPhone app. For $8 to $13 per month, users can download an app that will text and call friends and family members when it detects a fall.

Just as ProtoGeo’s Moves application demonstrated that activity tracking can be done on the smartphone itself, with no need for a dedicated device, CareBeacon is attempting the same feat for the mPERS market. CareBeacon uses a combination of the phone’s built in GPS and accelerometer to detect falls or extended periods of no movement.

When it detects a fall or an extended lack of movement, the app first displays an “Are You OK?” message and makes a sound. A louder alarm goes off 15 seconds later. If the user still doesn’t respond (or selects the “I need help” option), the app automated calls and texts predetermined friends and family members with the user’s GPS coordinates. Family and friends can then call emergency services.

The value proposition for a smartphone-only activity tracker is a little easier to sell than a smartphone-only mPERS because older people are still less likely to even have a smartphone, much less carry one around all the time. A survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project this time last year put smartphone ownership at 13 percent for the 65 and over crowd. And the lack of a dedicated professional answering service might be a problem for some users — one’s friends and family won’t always pick up their phones.

On the other hand, the cost compares very favorably to device-based offerings or systems that employ a dedicated call center. While the app can be tried for free for two weeks, after that it costs $13 for a single month, $30 for three months, or $100 for a year. The discreet form factor might also be a plus for CareBeacon: there’s been a lot of talk in the aging in place space about the stigma attached to wearing an obvious pendant or bracelet — seniors generally don’t like solutions that feel like reminders of frailty.

CareBeacon was started by by Toby Northcote-Smith, an engineer with a background in the entertainment sector, and Robert Schoenburg, a 71-year-old software engineer. In a post on Medium about the founding of the company, Northcote-Smith outlined some of the problems CareBeacon is trying to solve.

“[Thirteen] million people over the age of 65 fall every year or one every 2.3 seconds,” he wrote. “The average person lays as long as 15 hours without someone knowing they have fallen. Among the elderly people studied [in a British Medical Journal study], only 20% of seniors pushed the panic button following a fall.”

At the moment, CareBeacon is offering a free iPhone case to every subscriber, and donating 5 percent of profits to charity groups focused on myelodysplastic syndrome, the condition of the friend who inspired the creation of the app. Northcote-Smith also outlined some future plans in his post.

“In January, we will release an update to the app including features such as sensing when the customer is driving,” he wrote. “We are building a messaging cycle that triggers if there is a car accident. So in a sense we are an iPhone-based OnStar.”

Update: Northcote-Smith told MobiHealthNews in an email that those motion-sensing features were released on time. Current future plans involve integrating Apple’s iBeacon into the app.