These smart socks can predict agitation in people living with dementia
Five years after her dementia diagnosis, Kathleen Robinson became prone to bouts of physical and verbal aggression, making it increasingly harder for her family to take care of her.
After his great grandmother Kath passed away, PhD student Zeke Steer began volunteering at a care home, where he witnessed the effects of residents’ agitation and aggression on carers, which left them feeling frightened, powerless and overwhelmed.
“Carers spend 28% of their time managing agitation and it adds an extra £2 billion per year to the UK’s dementia care bill,” Steer says. “And the number of people living with dementia in the UK is set to double over the next 20 years.”
As a researcher in robotics and autonomous systems at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Steer began wondering if there was anything he could do to help. He spoke to family carers to understand their challenges, and worked closely with the St Monica Trust in Bristol, one of the country’s leading care providers, to gradually build a picture of what scope there is for technology to address some of these issues and what barriers he might encounter.
“I found that existing wearables just aren’t suitable for people living with dementia,” Steer says. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence for this. For example, a really expensive smartwatch that one resident had received as a gift from a relative ultimately ended up in the toilet, flushed down in a moment of confusion. There were stories about devices being thrown out of the window. I got an appreciation of how somebody with dementia might respond to a wearable device that isn’t familiar, and how that ultimately could lead to it being damaged, lost or removed.”
That’s where the story of Milbotix begins, a wearable tech startup launched by Steer with the goal of developing more familiar, comfortable and tolerable devices for people living with dementia, with a specific clinical application in avoiding behavioural escalations and agitation.
Steer joined Conception X to develop his pitching skills, learn how to communicate his research effectively, find out more about a financial planning strategy that would work for his startup, understand how to navigate the investment pipeline, get support from industry experts to conduct customer discovery surveys, and more.
“There are so many tools that Conception X has equipped me with that have been really instrumental in getting us this far,” Steer says. “After sitting at a desk for so long, as it’s often the case with PhD research, Conception X has given me the springboard to get out into the world and talk to people.”
As its first product, Milbotix is developing smart socks for use by residents in care homes. The socks incorporate sensors to collect data on electrodermal activity, cardiac activity and motion, and the data is transmitted wirelessly to a processing unit where a machine learning algorithm generates a recognition of distress. Stress data is then communicated to carers using a smartphone or other smart device.
“There are three locations where electrodermal activity, which is a sweat response, can be measured,” Steer says. “Two of them aren’t suitable — the palms and fingers of the hand, and the middle of the forehead — while the foot is an attractive location as it lends itself to monitoring of several key parameters, including falls.”
The device looks like a regular pair of socks so it’s less likely to cause distress and be removed, and it can easily be cleaned in the washing machine. The battery lasts for three to four months so the wearable doesn’t need to be charged.
Since completing Conception X in 2021, Steer has received backing from the UK Dementia Research Institute, support from Thrive Wearables, and is currently looking to raise. Alzheimer’s Society will also be working with Milbotix over the next 12 months through their Accelerator programme.
“This innovative wearable tech is a fantastic, accessible way for [care home] staff to better monitor residents’ distress and agitation,” Natasha Howard-Murray, Senior Innovator at Alzheimer’s Society, says. “We’re looking forward to supporting Milbotix through our Accelerator programme, providing investment, innovation support and linking up with our network of people with dementia to help co-design and test out this brilliant product.”
As part of his PhD, Steer has also been researching robotic solutions that could provide an initial calming response once stress is detected, and has plans to commercialise these at a later stage.