Jean Anne Booth
Chief Executive Officer
Focus groups have named UnaliWear's Kanega watch a wearable “OnStar for People” because we provide discreet support for falls, medication reminders, and a guard against wandering in a classically-styled watch that features an easy-to-use speech interface rather than buttons. Thanks to our patent-pending battery system in the band, you never have to take your watch off to charge - and unlike Apple watch or Samsung Gear, we don’t require a smart phone (because it's built in).
We combine cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS, BLE (for hearing aids and telemedicine devices), an accelerometer for automatic fall detection, and continuous speech to provide an active medical alert that works anywhere, along with data-driven artificial intelligence that learns the wearer's lifestyle (think "NEST for people") to provide predictive, pre-emptive support.
HTA - Tell us a little about your background?
I have 30 years’ experience in semiconductors, with a BS in Electrical Engineering and MS in Computer Engineering. Most of my semiconductor experience was in the forefront of microcontrollers and microprocessors, the computing engines behind modern life. I’m a proud army brat, and grew up in 10 states and two countries outside the US. I put myself through my undergraduate degree at UT by working every other semester at NASA in Houston, and it was a fantastic experience, giving me the incentive to persevere through the grueling EE curriculum at UT and setting the groundwork for the rest of my career.
I had so much fun in my job at NASA that they enacted restrictions on the amount of overtime that interns were allowed to work - yes, I very much needed the money, but the biggest driver was that I really enjoyed my work. I was the system administrator for one of the very first networked computer systems back in the days of the Arpanet, before the creation of the Internet that we know today. But Houston is not Austin, and when I graduated from UT, I did a short stint in industrial process controls before entering the semiconductor industry. I spent the next decade at AMD.
HTA - So what inspired the creation of UnaliWear?
UnaliWear was inspired by my mom, and by my desire to give her independence with dignity as she ages. Mom’s been a model all her life, and she’s always been tall and slender. As she’s aged, naturally she's become shorter but also downright small - the medical definition of “frail”. She lives independently in San Antonio, and when she turned 80, we had a discussion of what we should do to keep her safe while she maintains her independence.
Mom emphatically told me she wasn’t willing to wear today’s emergency alert products because they’re ugly, limited outside the home unless they are tethered to a smart phone (which she doesn’t have, and more important, she doesn’t want), and those big help buttons are socially stigmatizing. Imagine a stylish model wearing one of those buttons products - it just isn’t going to happen. I later discovered that my mom is in the 88% of the independent-but-vulnerable 75+ population that won’t use any of today’s emergency alert products.
HTA - What was UnaliWear’s journey like to get where you are today?
After that seminal discussion with mom about four years ago, I thought about what it was going to take to keep mom independent AND safe. I was retired at the time, and a few weeks later I called mom and pitched the idea of building a watch that talked to you, that helped with falls, medication reminders, and directions home if you ever had a “senior moment”. That conversation resulted in mom becoming our Senior User Experience Advisor (did you catch the double meaning?), and it’s been fantastic getting to work with her on this company. Mom was personally responsible for the first 100 of the more than 400 folks who’ve come through our focus groups as we’ve built the Kanega watch.
I didn’t set out to build one of the most sophisticated smart-watches in the world, but to be able to extend independence with dignity, that’s what we’ve had to do. I am a serial entrepreneur, so I do know how hard startups are in real life, and UnaliWear has been no exception - it’s been a four-year marathon to get to where we are - just about to sell our first Kanega watches.
HTA - Who are your ideal customers?
The market that UnaliWear is in - PERS, or Personal Emergency Response Systems - is private pay (i.e., not covered by insurance). For the 75+ market - which is the majority of PERS sales - the typical buyer is a woman between the ages of 45 and 65 buying for the parents or in-laws. In other words, I am the traditional buyer.
HTA - What has surprised you about the Health Care industry?
Most of what I’ve learned about the health care industry hasn’t been surprising, per se - but I didn’t comprehend the depth of the issues. “Everybody” knows that the US health care industry is a slow adopter, bureaucratic, and still very much fee-for-service rather than value-based. But what I didn’t realize is the degree with which these issues drive the industry, and therefore controls whether or not innovations become available to people in the US. And the thing that surprised me the most was the notion that health innovators need to raise the money for any work they do with large entities - trials, pilots, etc.
In my years in semiconductors, large customers would work with our disruptive solutions at the customers’ expense, usually working with the startup and a traditional supplier (with a “safe” but much less compelling solution) at the same time. It’s nuts to me that in an industry with as many expensive problems as healthcare, we would expect startups to pay the corporate costs of pilots and trials. That’s absolutely crazy.
HTA - You founded Luminary Micro, recruited the exec team, and raised $46M in 3 rounds of funding before selling it to TI. Tell us about that experience?
I created Luminary Micro to disrupt a fragmented and stale industry, which in 2004 was about a $12B industry and is now about a $20B industry. The overwhelming majority of that growth has come from ARM-based microcontrollers, and Luminary Micro was ARM's lead partner and brought the first ARM-based microcontrollers to the market in 2005. To the pleasure of embedded developers everywhere, we definitely disrupted the market. What we did for hardware was like what iOS and Android did for software — allowed developers to focus on their value add, rather than the details that underlie the platform.
Our exit to TI was one of the top venture-backed M&A of 2009, and as far as I know, Luminary Micro was the only fabless semiconductor company to exit for a profit during that time period.
Hmmm, a fragmented and stale industry in desperate need of disruption. Sounds a lot like PERS!
HTA - What about the other companies you founded? Any unique experiences you would like to share?
One of the most useful experiences I’ve had in my startup career was actually the first startup that I joined in 1997. That startup was a few years old at the time, and about 9 months after I joined, it went out of business. I was asked to help with the wind-down, and I got to see first-hand the ending stages of a company. That experience fueled my Rule #1: Never Run Out of Money. You can fix almost anything if you have runway, and you can’t fix anything without it. Of course, 66% of startups have less than six months of runway, so this is a constant battle.
HTA - What is the secret to attracting investors? What about networking?
Three simple things: tell a story, practice your pitch, and surround yourself with positive people. Probably the biggest challenge that entrepreneurs have is that we always want to say too much - just don’t do it! Remember the two rules of marketing: (1) Never tell them everything you know. :-)
HTA - You are a female founder, what have been the challenges and opportunities for you?
It’s fairly impossible to compare one person’s startup journey to another person’s startup journey - or to say “this is because I’m female” or “this is because I’m a minority”. About a decade into my corporate career, I learned the very valuable lesson that everyone has barriers to overcome - even that person that you think has it made has challenges. Not to say that some populations don’t have more challenges - but contrary to what you read in the media, nobody has it easy. Don’t steal your self-confidence by comparing your reality to someone else’s PR.
HTA - What are you reading? What have you watched recently?
For a mental break, I enjoy reading science fiction, especially the short stories in Analog and Asimov’s magazines because they fit in my schedule. I don’t usually watch TV, but this weekend I watched a movie for a mental break, and there was a sequence about elders being checked into a senior living facility that then they weren’t allowed to leave. The character said, “I’ve been an investor [in this place] for 10 years, and it’s been a great investment. You have no idea how much people will pay to get their parents out of the way!” Naturally, I cheered when some of the seniors staged a “jail break” in the movie.
HTA - How have mentors helped you in your career?
Mentors - and positive people - are extremely important. Among the many wonderful people who have helped me along the way, two stand out: my college roommate (and best friend) Arline Nieder and the incomparable Jan Ryan.
From Arline, I learned that when I’ve been challenged to keep UnaliWear going, the question to ask myself is, ‘Are there still paths to go down? Are there options left?’ It’s not time to give up until there are no more options available. I have the grit, but Arline gave me the structure.
From Jan, I learned that although there have been times that I’ve gone into investor meetings or sales calls as UnaliWear was running out of money, you can’t act like you need money. Instead, take a deep breath, go to your positive people for a pick-me-up, remind yourself of how far you’ve come, and as Jan says, ‘never let it show’.