“Extend your independence, with dignity”
We spoke to founder of UnaliWear, about her motivating journey in creating her company and product, inspired by her mother. Read all about her story and how the product works…
I’m Jean Anne Booth, the owner and CEO of UnaliWear. The easiest way to describe the product is that it is like an Apple Watch, for seniors.
I started the company around eight years ago, I came out of retirement to do so. My mum, who was a model, had just turned 80. As she became a bit more frail, we had the conversation about what are we going to do to keep you safe? I showed her a spreadsheet of all the options that were available on the market. We went through them all, and when she looked at it she was not keen on any of the options available! At first, I was a bit taken aback, but when I thought about it, I’m a nerd’s nerd, and I would never wear one of those ugly, stigmatising pendants, so why would I expect my mum, the model to wear one? The answer is, she wouldn’t! That was the beginning genesis of UnaliWear.
Starting the journey
As we started the company, my mum was the senior user experience advisor. She was personally responsible for the first 100 people who came through our focus groups. She weighed-in on all aspects including mechanical construction, design and user experience, so it’s really more hers than mine!
The thing that made me come out of retirement and start this project was the patented battery system in the band. This allows you to wear the watch 24/7. It’s completely waterproof. The number one cause of death and injury with seniors is falls. The majority of those falls happen in the bathroom, often at night. So even if you have one of the available wearable devices on the market, they are often charging at night when this demographic is most vulnerable.
When we came up with the battery system in the band, that’s when I said this is worth coming out of retirement for! What motivated me was that we can give a differentiated product that can save lives, and that’s what we do today.
A career in tech
I’ve been in the tech industry for over 40 years now. For the first 30 years, my career was in semiconductors. One of my start-ups sold to Texas Instruments and the other one sold to Apple, and that’s why I was retired!
When I retired, I took a job as a dive master on a liveaboard scuba diving boat, which was absolutely awesome! Too many people have the perspective of retirement as being that you stay at home, wither away and that’s it. I don’t look at it that way at all. Retirement simply means that you are engaged in the pursuits that you probably couldn’t make a living at if you were ‘working’.
Getting the product off the ground and raising funding
I think of myself as a serial entrepreneur. And I am one of two people that I know of who have sold two semiconductor companies for above water. I had laid out our first round [of funding] through market pilots at about $3 million, and I thought that would take around three to four months to raise that amount. I had raised over a hundred million dollars from VCs before, so had the experience.
I went back to everybody and either got ‘No’s’ or was completely ghosted. It took nine months to raise my first half million from Angels. The three million dollars from the pilot, took 2 and a half years. Since then, I have raised over $15 million, but it is primarily angels.
It has been a really interesting learning experience, going to funding because things have changed a lot since working with the semiconductor companies.
Looking at your pitch
What’s normal when anyone is doing any kind of funding, is that you have your presentation and funding pitch. You’re telling a great story and it’s a fantastic pitch, you’re excited and you go out and make your pitch. You don’t imagine 100% people will say yes, but if it’s 100% that say no, then you step back and ask yourself what’s wrong?
You start with yourself, am I telling the story wrong? Do I need to change my appearance? Am I wearing the wrong clothes? Is there something that’s making it not resonate the way I think the story should resonate, is it me? If the answer is no – which it was – then the next question is, is there another factor? You could easily say that Jean Anne is an old woman and nobody wants to fund an old woman! Bias does exist and truly if you want to find bias, I promise you that you will!
You have to move on. The next stage of moving on becomes, is it what I’m doing? And that is where over the last eight years when I’m going through that ‘triangle’, that’s where I stop again. What we do is Silver Tech, products for older people. In our case it’s actually independent but vulnerable populations and the youngest customer right now is 27. It’s not necessarily just older people, but the majority of our users are seniors.
Funding Silver Tech
We just don’t fund that product space, and I couldn’t work out why. Somebody recently told me that the reason we are not funding Silver Tech is because nobody has made it ‘big’ yet. As soon as somebody makes it big, all of the VCs are going to jump in. A lot of places say that they’re into elder technology and senior technology but when you pitch to them, they say no or say that they don’t do physical products.
I do give a lot of kudos to all the Angels that have backed us, as without them we wouldn’t be saving all of the people that we are, today. We are saving lives, and it’s an awesome thing to build a product that makes such a positive difference in people’s lives. It has been totally worth coming out of retirement to do something like this and I am working hard to get that final bit of growth funding that lets us really expand beyond the happy users that we have today.
We sell exclusively direct to consumer. We pivoted to direct consumer at the beginning of the pandemic. You can buy it on our website. You can find out all about the Kanega Watch here https://www.unaliwear.com/
Naming the product
The name ‘Unalii’ is Cherokee for friend. And Kanega – the watch brand, is the Cherokee word for ‘speak’ so we are the friend that speaks to you.
You can speak directly to the watch and ask for help, the watch then will confirm that you need help and ring straight through to dispatch. You speak to the watch, and the watch speaks to you.
Today, we are US only and we are at the growth stage looking for growth funding. When we are stable in the United States, I would love to go international.
There are 56 million people in US today who are over the age of 65, and there are over a billion worldwide. It’s quite astounding what some of our cultural biases do; I was talking to a VC in Silicon Valley a few years ago who described the market as a ‘niche market’! It’s a reflection of our cultural bias, we tend not to think about the older people.
We better start thinking about them as it’s the fastest growing segment of the population in the world not just in any one country. If we don’t give everyone the tools to manage their own ageing process in a way that they can use, then we’re going to have to manage their ageing process for them. Nobody wants that, and there aren’t enough people to do it!
I would love to go international. We engineered the Kanega watch so that he could easily change languages and easily change communications infrastructure. There are other things that we can do, in the United States you are limited by the FDA in terms of what kind of capabilities you can provide in something that connects to the public safety access backbone. That’s what we do, we actually bypass the emergency phone number 911, and we go direct to dispatch which puts us in a special category for the FDA. This means that we can’t have any physical biometrics, it’s not an engineering problem, is an FDA issue.
There is a lot that we can do to help people manage their ageing for much longer. No one wants to lose control over their lives. The number one fear people have as they get older, is losing control over their lives. It is also a good thing for society, to be able to be able to allow people to live independently for much longer as this saves money and preserves dignity.
Our tagline is “independence with dignity”, and what that really means, for us is control. Controlling your own life, as long as you have the cognitive capability to do so.
We have gone through some growth stages, and some contracting stages, driven by the challenges of creating a product in Silver Tech. When we raise the growth funding we will be adding to the team. For right now it is a small team.
Advice for people looking to start their own company
Ideas are not sufficient; execution is what it takes. If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me that they had the idea to build a watch for seniors, I would never have had to raise money! It’s the execution that really matters. When it comes to that, you have to find a way to get it funded. This is where I have a couple of pieces of advice:
The first one is on the question of giving up. One of the things I learned from my best friend, who has been pivotal in advice throughout my life, was when I asked her if I should just stop? She said to me, are you out of paths to go down? I would have to say no. Have I talked to everybody? No. So you’re not done yet. You’re not done until you are out of paths to go down.
People also vastly under scope the amount of tenacity it takes to start-up a company. To give you an example, there was a year when I pitched 327 VCs, all of which said no. And yet I didn’t give up and here we are, we’re growing, we are doing phenomenally. Customers love our product, and we have mostly five-star reviews and an A+ rating on the Better Business Bureau. If I had given up, we wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t have saved the lives that we have already saved.
Finally, you do need somebody that will be a help. Whether that is a coach or best friend because there will definitely be times when an entrepreneur is going to go through the ‘angry phase’ following frequent ‘No’s’. When this happens, you have to find a way to move past it as you are definitely not going to raise money when you’re angry! That’s a normal part of the process.
How to contact us
You can contact us here at Menlo Park, by calling 0113 468 9230 to speak to our friendly team. We can help if you are looking for a new role, or if you are wanting to recruit to your new start up. We will listen to your needs and find you the perfect job or candidate!