Avatars improving health and aged care
Clevertar, a spin-out company from Flinders University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (AI Lab) is an expert in designing and developing relational agents – ‘clever avatars’ – for healthcare. Relational agents have been shown to attract attention, encourage healthy living, improve adherence to medication and treatment and motivate and empower users.
The AI Lab, based in the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics at Flinders University, is a world class research facility focussed on creating machine-based ‘intelligence’ to improve human welfare. Their Head X Research Platform, with a major focus on the ‘Thinking and Teaching Head ’, is one of their core projects. Research has found that when people interact with these ‘embodied conversational agents’ they tend to be more attentive and honest in their responses, are more likely to understand and trust the information given and are highly engaged in the interaction, both in the short and longer term. This engagement creates an ideal situation to positively influence customer behaviour.
Clevertar’s key service offering using this technology is Anna Cares. Anna Cares is a revolutionary software application for health and aged care providers and their clients which combines mobile care and case management capabilities to support more efficient and effective health management. The platform is designed to support custom solutions, for example, in long-term health coaching, to engage, monitor, and educate consumers.
Backed by AI Lab science, ‘Anna’ is a personal assistant for iPad, designed to help clients with day-to-day activities and aimed at improving/maintaining their health and activity regimes. She is a talking, interactive assistant, supporting clients and helping them maintain their independence. Anna Cares manages the daily relationship between the patient and health care provider, allowing the provider to connect with and monitor client wellbeing on a daily basis, avoiding time-consuming phone calls and visits and focusing on genuine care coordination rather than routine disruptions. Thus, Anna Cares extends the care workforce at a fraction of the cost of human intervention, and is therefore ideally suited to environments where consumer adherence to their care plan is critical for successful self-management. Anna Cares also allows family members and other caregivers to seamlessly join the network.
Clevertar is also the technology provider for the My Diabetes Coach (MDC) virtual health coach system. Built through collaboration between the Bupa Health Foundation, The University of Melbourne and Diabetes Australia, the MDC system comprises a virtual health coach named Laura who delivers regular health coaching to people with Type 2 diabetes. This is done via their iOS or Android smart phone or tablet devices. Laura also receives blood glucose readings, monitoring the consumer over time, and sending alerts to the case manager when concerns arise.
In addition to healthcare, AI Lab’s research and technology has numerous applications across human-machine communication including: telecommunications, e-commerce and mobile phone technology; personalised aids for disabled users, the hearing impaired, the elderly, and children with learning difficulties; foreign language learning and will also facilitate the development of animation in new media, film, and in particular games.
From Lab to Market
Dr Martin Luerssen, an artificial intelligence specialist from Flinders University, played a key role in ‘The Thinking Head’ research program. His research forte is in the field of nature-inspired computing, specifically the application of biological principles to machine learning. With a comprehensive background in computational intelligence, Dr Luerssen is responsible for the ‘clever avatar’ technology which uses animated characters that interact with customers in a human-like way – creating social situations that didn’t exist before. “CleverMe” was the original spin-off from that research.
To test the software and validate the technology, a commercial partner was sought. Rossdale Homes, one of South Australia’s most respected builders, came on board as a partner, hosting a demonstration application of the CleverMe technology as a virtual guide for customers to “visit” their display homes. The initial Rossdale application enabled CleverMe to establish its legitimacy as a technology provider and demonstrate its application to other partners and customers. This proved the initial concept in this context: virtual characters are engaging.
In 2012, Clevertar, formerly CleverMe, was founded by Dr Martin Luerssen and Ms Tanya Newhouse as a vehicle to commercialise technologies, particularly innovative software developed in Flinders University’s AI Lab, with the aim of bringing these technologies to a global market and realising their social and commercial potential. The company focused on product and market testing and development through collaboration with a range of commercial partners. In early 2012 it released an iPhone/iPod Touch app targeting tween-age girls with partner Pacific Magazines. The app was highly novel and game-like and was a real life demonstration of both the appeal of this interaction technology and the behaviour of this market segment. Early financial support, through a $240,000 Australian Government commercialisation grant, supported the development of a platform for use in care settings. Helping Hand, a not-for-profit organisation offering home care services, retirement living and residential care homes to over 7,000 clients in metropolitan and regional South Australia, undertook trials throughout 2014 and provided valuable feedback on functionality and market readiness.
In late 2014, Mark Pitcher was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of Clevertar to provide strategic direction and oversee day-to-day operational execution. Mark brought extensive experience as a senior leader across a range of industries and had been responsible for successful start- ups, venture capital injections and IPO’S, through to successful exits.
In mid-2015, Clevertar entered into a strategic partnership with Konica Minolta who injected $600,000 into the business enabling further market expansion and scaling operations.
Throughout this commercialisation journey, Clevertar worked closely with Flinders Partners, the commercialisation arm of Flinders University. Flinders Partners acted as a facilitator, providing advice and support in stakeholder negotiations, product prototypes, market research, legal/IP negotiations, corporate structure, financial evaluations, funding applications and investor management and deal structuring.
Outcomes & Benefits
The Care Management Systems market is estimated at $4 billion globally and is projected to grow at 21% for the next several years. Clevertar is well positioned to be a commercial success story and take a significant share of this growing, global marketplace. A pilot trial of ‘Anna Cares’ is currently being conducted in Pennsylvania, ahead of a staged expansion in America. The company is already a technology leader with a multiple award wins at Tech23 and two South Australian-NT iAwards for Best New Product and Best Health Product.
The commercial partnerships proved to be a win-win for all involved. The partners gained insights and access to technologies and innovations outside their core business, whilst Clevertar gained access to commercial resources and reputation, market channels and customers to rapidly validate product fit and market adoption. For Konica-Minolta, the strategic partnership with Clevertar helps advance its strategic objectives of being pro-innovation and pro-Australian start-up. It has recently established an Australian-based Innovation and Healthcare team which furthers the work of its Asia-Pacific Business Innovation Centre (BIC). The BIC understands that an ageing population will become increasingly reliant on mobile technology solutions to help people stay in their homes for longer. This view is shared by Clevertar and the companies are working together to revolutionise healthcare delivery.
Finally, Clevertar’s relational agent technology helps consumers better manage their chronic conditions, keep healthy, stay out of hospital and maintain independence, resulting in quality of life improvements for patients and their families. Lower costs and more effective and efficient healthcare management, result in financial and human resource gains for healthcare providers and a reduction in the burden on the economy.
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