Production underway for Onköl’s home health monitor

Milwaukee startup aims to make IoT work for seniors

OnKöl's monitoring device.

Onköl
Milwaukee
Innovation: Home health monitor
www.onkol.net


Nearly a year-and-a-half after launching its hub at the Consumer Electronics Show, Milwaukee-based startup Onköl continues to build momentum, with its first manufacturing run entirely sold and plans underway for additional production.

Onköl aims to allow senior citizens to continue living in their homes while keeping family members informed about their loved ones. It does this through its hub, a small box that connects with hundreds of different health and home monitor sensors. The goal is to enable the Internet of Things to work for seniors, said Erich Jacobs, chief executive officer.

Onköl’s hub allows family members to remotely monitor health and home data from connected devices.
Onköl’s hub allows family members to remotely monitor health and home data from connected devices.

“We have a phrase,” Jacobs said. “The Internet of Things is wasted on the young.”

He said that while it’s nice to know the activity level of someone in their 20s or 30s through a Fitbit, the value of data coming from connected sensors goes up exponentially when they are used for seniors.

“Our goal is not to make those sensors, it’s to make those sensors work for grandma,” he said.

The hub allows family members to monitor a senior’s health, but the target customer for the device is actually other businesses. Jacobs said this includes in-home care agencies, health and call monitoring centers, rehab facilities and assisted and independent living facilities.

Jacobs
Jacobs

Jacobs declined to say how many units were involved in the first production run, but described it as “a lot.” The company did field trials last year and is now determining the size of subsequent runs. It started a $5 million funding round last year to support manufacturing and Jacobs said while the company has received enough support to produce units, the round remains open because of strong demand and interest.

Founder Marc Cayle wanted to create a device that would feed data directly from one device to another, but he also wanted it to go beyond emergency pendants that are more reactive.

“We wanted to come up with something that was very preventative and realistic,” Cayle told BizTimes last year. “Most seniors don’t use smartphones, so it’s specifically designed not to be tethered to a smartphone.”

While Onköl can connect to emergency pendants, it also can connect to monitors that track blood pressure, glucose levels, pulse oximetry, weight and more. And it connects to home monitors like those tracking whether a door or a window is open, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and motion sensors.

With so many possibilities, Jacobs said it is important for the device to accommodate change.

“We actually don’t know what some of the best sensors are going to be,” he said.

Cayle
Cayle

The need to adapt to quickly changing technology means Onköl was designed with an eye toward avoiding potential restrictions. Similar products that are dedicated medical solutions are built to be subject to full FDA regulations, meaning some changes can kick off another round of approvals before consumers can take advantage of new technology.

“It can deal with medical grade data in a medical grade fashion, but we don’t have to deal with the approval,” Jacobs said.

That doesn’t mean Onköl doesn’t have hurdles to clear. Jacobs noted the company has to maintain UL certifications as both an alarm and a health monitoring system. Because it uses cellular signals, the device has to be certified with multiple carriers.

“It naturally presents a lot of challenges,” he said.

Since the device is handling the private medical information of seniors, security is naturally among those challenges. Jacobs said the answer is to encrypt all the data both inbound and outbound.

Onköl is currently working from the Direct Supply Technology Center on the Milwaukee School of Engineering campus downtown. Jacobs said the company has between eight and 12 full-time employees and contractors working on the product at various times.

Jacobs himself lives in Boston, but spends a good deal of time in Milwaukee. Onköl has committed to working with local suppliers when possible and the devices are being manufactured in Pleasant Prairie.

“Wisconsin is pretty well-positioned to deal with this complex of a product,” Jacobs said. “The fact that Milwaukee knows how to build stuff, that’s kind of important.”


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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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