Newsroom Special Inquiry

The $11m health watch that wasn’t

A smart watch company co-founded by Sir Ray Avery has launched its wristwear-cum-personal alarm products - albeit without the functions envisioned when the business won a high tech award and $10 million total investments from Spark and Bupa.

The project to develop Avery's "brainchild" also qualified for up to $1 million from the taxpayer-funded Callaghan Innovation.

The watches were originally pitched as smart medic-alert bracelets for a growing older population. They would record the wearer’s heart rate, temperature and other vital signs and track them using cloud-based software, automatically triggering an alert if there was a worrying change in pattern.

The idea attracted accolades and in 2016 Avery suggested the technology could disrupt the personal health insurance market.

Instead, the company, Jupl (pronounced ‘JOO-pill’), launched a much simpler package in May that includes a 3G watch made by Samsung, with a personal alarm button a user can press to be connected by phone, via Spark’s mobile network, to a nominated friend, family member, or call centre. The call centre can phone an ambulance if needed.

The promise of the biometric watch proved a wrist too far in development.

Jupl’s CEO and co-founder with Avery, Alan Brannigan, told Newsroom practical issues had emerged with using automatic alerts, because, for example, people wear watches with varying tightness.

“It's fair to say that we are not using the metrics as originally intended or claimed in the past,” Brannigan said. “We adjust based on feedback from users and a better understanding of how the device/platform performs and what the data sets tell us.”

“With regards to heart rate, we found that triggered alerts off patterns is difficult to control because you are so dependent on how the user wears the device (the tightness/looseness of the straps will change the heart rate signal recorded, for example).”

Brannigan noted that the Samsung Gear watches include a heart rate sensor, from which Jupl’s software can collect and analyse data, alongside movement and GPS-tracked location.

“Although not medically accurate, [the heart rate] does give the call response team another indicator as to the state of the user at the time. Also, given that the watch needs to be on the wrist to obtain the heart rate, this acts as a useful indicator when combined with movement for example, i.e. the watch is not moving and there is no heart rate so perhaps it's sitting on a table. Or the watch is not moving at time when we would expect it to and there is a heart rate signal. This could suggest the person is lying still when not expected and hence could trigger an alert,” he said.

Brannigan didn’t clarify whether this information was currently being used to trigger alerts or ambulance call-outs. He declined to give more details about possible future functions for the watches, citing strategic sensitivity. 

Other watches, including the likes of Fitbits, include heart rate sensors. Ambulance services, such as St John, have devices which can be used to summon emergency help.

Bright start

Avery and Brannigan launched Vigil Monitoring in 2012 to develop the biometric watch, which Avery has said was a spinoff from technology involved in developing his infant incubators. 

Avery has been in the public eye for his bid to raise $4 million to build thousands of low-cost, low-maintenance infant incubators to send to hospitals in the Pacific, Asia and elsewhere. A planned Live Aid-style concert at Eden Park is stalled after the park decided not to proceed.

In 2013 Vigil received a $5 million investment from Spark’s now-disbanded product development arm, Spark Ventures, as well as access to research and development grants totaling close to $1 million from the government’s tech-boosting agency, Callaghan Innovation.

It is not clear how much of that taxpayer money was called upon for the project's functional promise.

Aged care and retirement village company Bupa invested an additional $5 million in 2014, BusinessDesk reported. Grainne Moss of Bupa told Newshub at the time the technology would be a "disruptor" in the industry, and Bupa wanted to get on board early. Vigil also formed partnerships with St John and Plunket to explore its use in healthcare.

Also in 2014 Vigil won best pre-commercialisation company at Callaghan’s high tech awards, an award Callaghan says is for a business with a clearly identified commercial advantage.

Callaghan’s announcement described the forthcoming product as Avery’s “brainchild”; an “intelligent medical alarm bracelet” that: “will monitor vital statistics, such as heart rate and temperature, and upload the data to an online storage system in real time. It will raise an alarm automatically if an adverse event, such as a fall or change in heart rate, is detected.”

In March 2016, the NZ Herald reported Vigil’s new technology “records a wearer's heart rate, temperature and other patient details from wireless devices, including smartwatches, before loading them to its database”.

Avery said at the time the technology would “disrupt the health insurance market by allowing companies to add value to customer policies through personalised biometric monitoring”. "[Companies] can make an insurance premium for you based on Vigil,” he said. At the time the company had successfully closed its first, $1 million, round of capital raising and was seeking a further $4 million to fund its global expansion programme.

In August 2017 Vigil Monitoring changed its name to Jupl, saying the company was “more than just monitoring” and encompassed connecting people by providing “personal biometric data in real time”. Brannigan added that the name change would allow Jupl to expand to new overseas markets using a consistent brand. 

Today a Google search for Vigil Monitoring yields a website redirecting users to Jupl first, followed by the website of a Canadian listed company, Vigil Health Solutions, which offers “wireless emergency calling” and other monitoring and safety services to seniors living in assisted housing, including movement tracking of dementia sufferers. An investor statement says the Canadian Vigil is focused on the North American market. 

Jupl’s August 2017 press release about the name change hinted it was targeting other personal protection markets as well as elderly and unwell people. In March 2018, Jupl announced a partnership focused on domestic violence victims with Australian company Survivor Watch, fronted by Australian swimming legend Dawn Fraser. Survivor Watch’s website allows people to donate to send alarmed watches to victims of domestic violence. Survivor Watch also markets its watches commercially to domestic violence victims, sole workers, travelers, the elderly and others; its ‘domestic violence survivors watch package’ was on sale this week for AU $695. Jupl’s press material at the time quotes Avery saying Jupl’s technology “will impact positively on millions of peoples’ lives”.

Then, in May 2018, Jupl launched its own products for sale in Australia and New Zealand on its website, pitching them to solo and remote workers, elderly people living independently and others. Retailing at $899 for the watch and a six-month software and mobile data subscription package (a price the Jupl website says is reduced from $1099) the product says it allows “two-way communication” with the nominated friend, family member or colleague after an alert is triggered. A pack connecting the caller to a monitored 24/7 call centre costs $999 (down from $1200) including a six-month subscription. 

Last month Avery demonstrated a watch to Newsroom. He pressed a button and a refined British robot voice said loudly that “an alarm had been triggered”, after which we heard Avery’s voicemail message (he had set the watch to phone his own mobile for demonstration purposes). 

Another option the business has trialed with volunteers is using its GPS-enabled watches to locate dementia suffers, if their loved one can’t reach them by phoning the watch. 

Sir Ray Avery is the co-founder of the smart watch company. File photo: Getty Image

Changes

But things have changed, and not just the decreased capability of the promised biometric watches.

Bupa confirmed today that it has sold its 17 percent stake in Jupl this week, citing “different business priorities” and a desire to focus on aged care and retirement living. The change leaves a trust linked to property developer Christopher Reeve as Jupl’s second-largest shareholder with a 17 percent stake (after Spark, with 25 percent). 

A former Morrinsville farmer with extensive property investments, Reeve now owns two-thirds of the shares previously owned by Bupa. Reeve told Newsroom he couldn’t say what he’d paid for his stake, but, now that property was often expensive to invest in he was looking beyond hard assets and buying stakes in digital companies, inspired by the success of Facebook, Google, Amazon and the like. “The internet changed everything. I’m looking around for ideas and we just look for good people and back good teams. It may or may not work out.”

Spark referred questions about its one quarter stake in the company to Jupl. The listed telco’s 2016 annual report said Spark had “assisted in the ongoing commercialisation of our investments in … Vigil Monitoring” (as Jupl was then called) but Spark declined to elaborate on its role or vision for the investment.

A spokeswoman initially said she’d track down Dean Werder, Spark’s general manager of finance and business performance and representative on Jupl’s three-man board, but did not subsequently reply to emails. 

The third-biggest single shareholder is Vigil Nominees, of which Brannigan is a director and shareholder with a number of others, with 10 percent. Avery and entities solely or majority-owned by him and his wife Anna own a combined 17 percent. A company solely owned by Brannigan owns a further roughly six percent.

Recent years have seen a number of changes in directors for various reasons, with Avery being the only constant. The current directors are Avery, Spark’s Werder and Bede Ashby.

Up until last Tuesday, Jupl’s website listed its directors as Keith Oliver (chair), Avery, Spark’s Rod Snodgrass and, Norah Barlow, the past president of the NZ Retirement Village Association, among others. The page was updated after Newsroom began its enquiries.

The companies register shows Oliver stepped down in July, while another director, Morgan Hill, ceased being a director in June. Werder replaced Spark Ventures’ Rod Snodgrass as Spark’s board representative in May 2016, when Snodgrass left Spark. Bupa’s former chief executive Grainne Moss departed the Jupl board a month earlier, in April, just before she left Bupa to head Oranga Tamariki (leaving Jupl without a director from Bupa). Some time earlier, in November 2016, Barlow had also left her Jupl directorship. Barlow also left other directorships around the same time, as she became chief executive of Australia’s Estia Health. The former chair, Oliver, did not respond to a message from Newsroom.

Brannigan acknowledged the governance changes but said the company’s overall strategy hadn’t changed but rather “extended in scope” with its customer base. “Like many companies, our governance structure changes from time to time. We continue to gauge the response of our customers and the market in general and adjust accordingly.” 

When told Newsroom had been writing about various Avery ventures as well as Jupl, Brannigan praised his co-founder highly. “Sir Ray … has been instrumental in growing the business across a wide range of investors and stakeholders. We have enjoyed a very positive relationship,” he said.

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