Tech start-up empowering elderly eyes global expansion
A finance veteran turned health tech entrepreneur is using lessons gained from his time developing a ground-breaking car data system to empower elderly people through smart home technology.
Jonathan Burr is chief executive at Howz, a smart home monitoring system created by Manchester-based digital healthcare company Intelesant as part of a £5.2 million NHS trial.
The connected home solution uses a combination of software and hardware – including movement sensors – to build up a pattern of daily behaviour and alert families of elderly people if anything is out of the ordinary.
"It's also able to look for and identify long-term shifts in behaviour – which can often predict emerging health problems and that’s really important," Burr told BusinessCloud.
A Chartered Accountant by training, Burr spent 18 years working in finance and business development roles in companies including Avis and GE Capital before leaving in 2000 to join Manchester-based road traffic and data services start-up ITIS Holdings as chief operating officer.
Burr helped to develop the world's first commercial floating car data system, providing real-time traffic and travel information services to 17 car manufacturers. The company went on to float on the AIM market before being acquired for almost £37 million in 2011.
"After that I wanted to do something different and I saw digital health as a massive opportunity," Burr said.
"We're all used to the idea that cars are connected and we get data from them and I thought we would solve a load of health issues if we could do the same with humans. I was probably a bit naïve because it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that."
Burr says he's used the lessons and experiences gained from his time at ITIS Holdings to help empower elderly people live independently for longer.
"In the automotive sector we took data that was essentially being generated for another purpose and made use of it," he said. "It was previously GPS and cell phone data and now we use smart home data to identify if an older person is doing okay."
Intelesant has been involved in several NHS trials and test beds but Burr believes that Howz could be adopted worldwide through partnerships with major utility companies and energy providers.
The company has been working closely with EDF Energy since taking part in its Blue Lab accelerator programme in 2016, which Burr says has opened up many opportunities for the business.
"We believe the NHS can and will become a very important customer in the future, but we think it will take time.
"In the meantime, we’re really focused on working with big utility companies because there’s a very interesting link between smart metering and what we do.
"There's a natural link between a person’s activity and their usage of energy – and that is data that can be used for good. Rather than it just being about getting your bill right, the data can – with consent – be shared with companies like Howz to bring reassurance to families."
Burr has been in talks with global utility companies in 10 countries and says that the Howz system could also be a way for them to stay engaged with their customers.
"What we’ve found about energy companies, and the same is true with insurance firms and other big businesses, is that they have a problem with customer engagement.
"They only talk to them once or twice a year to renew the tariff so this is actually a good way of being more directly involved with the customer."
The entrepreneur says the company’s biggest challenge is around marketing and communicating the benefits of the system – but is confident that Howz has the potential to help people around the world.
"I'd love to see it at a very, very large scale," he said.
"I don’t think I would have seen the way to do that six to nine months ago but being involved with utility companies from 10 different countries has really opened up our eyes to the possibilities.
"I'm very keen on it being a global business and obviously profitable but solving a problem for people as well.”