We interviewed our CEO, Deepak Samson, about the history of Ethel. What was the inspiration behind the Ethel Smart Hub, what challenges were faced and where he sees Ethel in the future.
Who is Ethel?
Ethel is a lovely 98 year old lady who lives in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. I met Ethel in the year 1997 when I moved to a small village in County Fermanagh as a youth worker and she is was and still is one of the kindest people I have met. She fed me a hot lunch weekly for about 2 years when I was young and couldn’t really cook and I loved talking with her. She has three children and a dozen grandchildren (and some more great grandchildren) , all of whom live away from her. She was a great traveller but with age she doesn’t travel to see her family anymore and that’s where the idea of a dedicated care hub started.
When I was doing my research on this topic and created an ideal ‘user persona’ kick start my innovation thinking, the one person who kind of captured all, if not most, of the persona was Ethel; and so I just named it after her.
Ethel is quite shy and unassuming and when I told her that I named it after her, she couldn’t quite believe it, but the twinkle in her eyes did tell me that she really liked it. She liked it so much that she went and told all her neighbours that they needed an Ethel!!! I visited her last year and sadly she couldn’t remember our conversation or my product.
Why did you create Ethel?
As someone who lives away from parents, I’m used to connecting with them over (starting with) telephones, then Skype came along and then Whatsapp. However, there are people like my dad who can’t really do email, SMS, Whatsapp, etc. It’s not that he is terribly old, it’s just that he has never used these devices and we tried every thing to teach him nee tricks, but failed. I realised that it would be amazing to have a dedicated, no-nonsense, easy to use, plug & go solution to enable busy families to support their elderly loved ones who live on their own. I asked a lot of my peers (the ‘sandwich generation’) who have a busy work life, probably 2 or 3 kids but are also concerned about ageing parents. I quickly realised that this generation would like to be more involved but couldn’t and would benefit from something like Ethel. At the same time, my work in the NHS highlighted the need for technology to alleviates some of the pressures that busy health and care teams face in managing chronically ill and frail elderly patients at home. About a decade ago, the NHS strongly pivoted to keeping people well at home and changed focus to becoming a wellness service rather than an illness service.
These two levers ignited a passion to do something – a dedicated solution that solved the social connection issue and also the healthcare delivery issue. That’s how Ethel was birthed.
Was creating a start-up difficult?
Yes and No. While I was in the NHS I was speaking to some Ehealth leaders and they quite didn’t get the concept/idea. They still lived in the old paradigm where Technology enabled care meant ‘a pendant around your neck’. Its like nothing has changed in that paradigm in the past 30 years. I was advised this would never work. Then I met others (clinicians and family carers) who asked, “when can I start to use this device?”
The hardest thing was leaving a secure NHS job to venture out on my own. I didn’t know what it meant to run a start-up. I learnt it all along the way. There is plenty of support for startups in UK in general, especially in Northern Ireland. With N.I being a small place you have to look outwards and thus scaling up outside of your own geography comes naturally for people from here.
What has been your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement was seeing the actual product working. Its all well and good to start with the ‘back of a napkin’ idea but then the real work starts and when you see it come to fruition, that’s when you pinch yourself and say “this is real”. I think getting our first public sector contract was the biggest. It’s never easy, they have lots of questions, others want (lots of) free pilots, it takes a long time to make their decision and longer to sign the dotted line, etc. But when we got our first customer in Scotland and that was huge.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was market adoption. Some staff in local authorities and NHS had been working in a certain way for years and then along comes this disruptive solution (that can make a positive difference) and they couldn’t really see beyond their own workload. However, once we put ourselves into their shoes, and tried to deeply understand their work pathways, concerns, etc, we were able to speak about our solution in a way that resonated with them.
Thankfully, we got good support from Invest Northern Ireland and Lisburn City Council to look at the sales and marketing function of our business so that we can deliver value to our customers.
Where do you see ETHEL in 5 years?
Our vision is to make Ethel into a ‘go to’ device for care at home. It plays out in two ways. Firstly, we want Ethel to bring joy for our users – to feel more connected with their family and friends, to squeal with delight when they see their great grandchildren, to remind them to take medication and keep hydrated and help them to age well in their own home. Secondly, for our care delivery teams we want Ethel to be the easiest way to manage vulnerable people in their own homes – to help them with medication, exercises, therapies, virtual consultations, monitor vital signs, pick up on early warning signs and also to give tailored health education, etc.