Entrepreneur Zachary Watson’s inspiration for his new venture came in prison. After working in investment banking overseas, Watson returned home and became involved in the Prison University Project at San Quentin.
“I was taken aback by the idea that we would have a social institution in this country that did the opposite of what it was intended to do,” he said.
Flash forward five years later, when Watson started researching institutionalized aging as an investor. “I saw the same pattern (in nursing homes). Once you are caught up in the system, it exacerbated the aging process. People became worse off.”
The 34-year-old founder and CEO of Nashville-based HoneyCo is now tackling that issue head on. Watson’s startup venture has raised its first $1.6 million in capital and developed two products to help older adults stay independent and secure.
HoneyCo Connect uses sensors to track a senior’s movements in case of unexpected falls or pattern changes, sending data to their love ones’ phones. HoneyCo Check reports on professional home care visits, so home care providers and families can work together to optimize the level of care.
Watson’s path to the aging-in-place market was a circuitous one. After college in New Mexico, he headed off to Russia and got a job with Farallon Capital Management. In 2007 he founded his own investment firm in the Ukraine. Later, after graduating from Stanford Business School, he worked for a fund in Saudi Arabia. He was approached to invest in a U.S.-based real estate deal and was excited by opportunities in the senior housing market.
But he concluded that many older adults were turned off by senior living options. His own parents told him the “the only way I was getting them into a retirement community was in the trunk of my car.”
There was an unmet need, he believed, for housing in multigenerational communities that suited the needs of retirees to age in safety and comfort. Watson, who also invested in early stage tech companies, looked to technology for the answer. “I realized that contractors could retrofit a home physically, so it’s easier to use and safe, widen doorways, put ramps in. But I was amazed there had not been an application for the Internet of things.”
Watson developed HoneyCo Connect, which quickly got rave reviews in the press–but sales did not take off.
Nor was it easy to educate consumers. Research shows that people often make decisions about senior housing in crisis mode–an adult child’s mother falls and breaks her hip–which is a hard time to teach anyone about new technology.
HoneyCo regrouped and targeted the business-to-business market, focusing on home care provider organizations with HoneyCo Check, which offers technology to improve quality of care and tools to gauge it. “We see our product as a way home care providers can differentiate themselves,” Watson said, helping reduce the turnover rate of caregivers that has been estimated at more than 60 percent. “The old adage is you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
“Normally you don’t have any insight into what’s going on during care visits,” he continued. “We are a source of truth about service delivered, with tech that prompts the caregiver by having a care plan in it. And we can attribute metrics to caregivers themselves.”
All visits are virtually supervised. HoneyCo Check communicates in real time with family members and supervisors when a task is completed and offers an opportunity to provide feedback on tasks completed.
Steve Nichols, who owns the middle Tennessee franchise for Comfort Keepers, a provider of in-home senior care, is now testing out HoneyCo Check in nine homes. Using Amazon Echo, the customers enjoy playing games like Scrabble. Home Care operators and loved ones can view the visit from start to finish since all tasks are time-stamped.
Seniors have a fun experience with the technology, Nichols said. “It’s both training for caregivers and assurance for families and providers.”
Watson’s hope is that innovations such as these will inspire people to plan in advance for their own future. “We need to change the conversation and navigate these transitions. We plan for retirement. We plan our funerals. Let’s plan early for things that will make us safe and comfortable as we get older.”