I first met Adam Russek-Sobol, the CEO of CareBand, at the LoRaWAN World Expo in Paris last year. He was building a wearable device for people with dementia using LoRaWAN connectivity to track them in case they wandered off. When Amazon showed off new partners for use of its Sidewalk Network in 2021, CareBand was one of the participants.
Eighteen months later, after Amazon announced that the network was finally generally available, I got back in touch with Russek-Sobol to see what the launch of the Sidewalk network meant for his company. As a bonus I also hoped he’d give some insights on the market for aging in place, which seems to be ripe for growth. But instead of triumph I found an entrepreneur caught in the crossroads.
Russek-Sobol started CareBand in 2016, and has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from mHub, a hardware accelerator. He is also the recipient of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. Russek-Sobol told me that when Amazon announced its Sidewalk Network, the promise of cheap connectivity was a way to bring his vision of a connected wearable for seniors to fruition. At CareBand, Russek-Sobol was already evangelizing not just his own technology, but the promise of LoRa. (The Amazon Sidewalk network uses a proprietary version of LoRa connectivity, not the open LoRaWAN technology.)
But waiting for the Sidewalk Network to fully launch while already struggling to produce hardware during a supply chain crunch wore on the company. Up until a couple of days ago, the product section of the company’s website had a button for the latest product suggesting it was coming in 2022 (today it just says coming soon).
“Our tech was early eight years ago,” Russek-Sobol told me. “We had to wait until it caught up with our vision from way back when. But today it’s really possible to execute, and the execution risk is now minimized.”
Sobol said it’s not just that people are talking about Amazon Sidewalk; they are also well aware of the potential for the aging-in-place market. And it’s now possible to build systems that have ambient sensing in place to monitor people in their homes without using intrusive tech like cameras, or clunky options like obvious panic-style buttons worn around the neck.
“[Aging in place] is a thing that people are talking about now. And not just tech people; there are market reports and stories all over the Internet making clear that this is a positive and that the IoT can finally happen in a way that brings more light back to what we’ve been working on in the shadows for the last seven years” Russek-Sobol said.
But over the past few years, potential customers pulled the company in a new direction. Russek-Sobol is currently working with an unnamed industrial client that is packaging CareBand’s technology into a solution for worker safety. This customer uses the LoRa connectivity and band itself to track workers in plants as well as lone workers, to ensure they are safe. When you have an oil and gas worker in the middle of nowhere checking out a pipeline or visiting a remote pumping station, having some type of device that can track if they’ve fallen or stopped moving is potentially life-saving.
During COVID, the assisted living and senior center customers that Russek-Sobol had hoped to attract had bigger things to worry about, so when the industrial market came calling, Russek-Sobol decided to work with them. The new hope is to bring CareBand directly to consumers now that the Sidewalk Network is operational and the need for such a product is clear.
Meanwhile, through an SBIR grant, the company is finishing up a study looking at use of the CareBand in the assisted living sector. But bringing hardware to the consumer audience is a big undertaking, requiring a lot of upfront investment. Given the current state of the venture market, and the reluctance to back small hardware providers, it’s unclear if Russek-Sobol can raise the money needed to build out a B2C business.
The current market for consumer-facing devices for monitoring elders are pretty similar. Many of them look like the I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up devices from the early 90s. They also come with a monthly fee. For example, the Lively button costs $50 and requires a $25 monthly subscription to ensure that when someone presses the button a person can dispatch help.
Outside of the established market for aging in place there are new entrants from the smart home side. Amazon has its Care Together program, which let’s customers use Alexa and various sensors in the home to make sure the person they are monitoring gets out of bed and moves about during the day. The Apple Watch provides fall detection and can call emergency services.
Russek-Sobol hopes the CareBand can become part of this latter category of devices that use existing technology to ambiently sense where a person is in their home and how they are doing. So devices to detect falls using millimeter wave technology or wrist-worn devices might also work with sensors on doors or smart speakers to show that a monitored person is moving throughout their home completing daily tasks.
The advantage of this approach is that the technology needed can fade into the background. Unlike a panic button device, it doesn’t have to be worn all the time, or publicly indicate infirmity. But it’s unclear if CareBand can compete with the hardware development and marketing heft of Apple or the existing market penetration provided by Amazon.
Russek-Sobol noted that the company has patents and expertise, as well as the potential for a shift into the industrial client base, but it’s clear his heart is in providing care. The time seems to finally be right. So the question is, will CareBand make the leap to building consumer-facing technology for health care, or will it focus on industrial customers?
Updated: This story was updated to correct Adam Russek-Sobol’s name. His name is Adam Russek-Sobol not Adam Sobol.