Interview with Kian Saneii, CEO of Independa
“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” – Sophia Loren
In this interview with Kian Saneii, the CEO and founder of Independa, he tells his story about immigrating to the United States from Iran, working at Bell Labs, and eventually managing and running startups. Independa is a platform that runs on the television and enables additional independence for the elderly and infirm. Independa has won a number of awards including the 2015 CES “Technology for a Better World” Global Award Recipient, the 2015 Entrepreneur Magazine 100 Brilliant Company, the Gartner Cool Vendor, the Frost & Sullivan Telehealth Product Line Strategy Award, and the CONNECT Most Innovative Product award.
Independa was started in the premise of developing a holistic system for caring for the elderly and infirm and allowing them to be more independent. Prior to Independa, there was no holistic system, only discrete solutions like telemedicine, life story recording, cognitive tools, and activity & behavior tracking. Independa provides a person-centric platform versus a patient-centric or episodic-centric platform. It is about wellness and health, and helping the person to be more independent and on their own, or stay in their current stage of care.
In the early stages of Independa, they worked with IDEO to validate the Independa idea through what IDEO called “ideation”. IDEO are experts on making products easy to use and accessible to the mass market. Indpenda did the complete coding of the system which includes a cloud-based component, a web interface, a mobile application, and the application that resides on the television set. The Independa platform leverages television and internet technology, and is designed for social engagement. The platform is simple, fun, easy to use, and engaging. Independa is all about thriving, and not about being old and needing help.
Early-on, Independa worked with LG Electronics as a strategic partner and investor. LG is the world leader in commercial televisions for the hospitality and hospital markets. In the US, there are about 5 million beds in the hospitality market, and another 1 million in hospitals. However, there are another 3.6 million in senior living communities, and another 50 million elderly people living in their homes that need some for of regular assistance. Independa, in conjunction with LG Electronics, developed the IndependaTVe for this market.
90+ percent of the elderly in the US prefer to be in their own home as they age. The want to thrive as they age, and feel safe & comfortable. The Independa platform is designed to keep these people away from the next stage of care which is from home to assisted living, from assisted living to nursing homes, and from there to a hospital.
There are three primary components of the Independa platform:
(1) A Social Engagement component for friends, family, and loved ones. Independa transforms the TV into an engagement window. Elements include picture sharing, life stories, video chat, and message sharing. All of this can also be accessed via a web browser or the mobile application. The engagement tool includes the care giving organization, the circle of care in the family or friends network, and the care recipient.
(2) An Organization & Community Engagement component that helps to improve the top line and bottom line of the organization, and provides brand improvements. Some of the tools include dining menus, survey capability, community calendar of events, and broadcast messages.
(3) An Integrated Remote Care component, with threshold-based alerts (e.g., phone calls and texts), to catch little things before they become big, expensive problems. This component helps the care recipient age at their current residence longer, safer and more comfortably.
Kian mentions that “No one who touches the system has to do anything more than they did before (using the system).”
There is a huge and growing market for tools that enhance the lives of the elderly, and Independa sits right in the middle of this.
In addition to the discussion about Independa, Kian gave a number of his insights as a company founder and startup CEO.
I hope you enjoy this interview and find it as interesting and informative as I did. Do you have aging parents or relatives? If so, I definitely recommend checking-out Independa. We love to hear from you about your experience.
Patrick: Hi, this is Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion, with the Real Deal…What Matters. I’m here today with Kian Saneii. Kian is the CEO of Independa, a very cool company we’re going to hear about today.
He was a general manager at Websense, another very cool company that did extremely well, founded here in San Diego.
His background is primarily in marketing and business development and general management, but he has done some very interesting web-based companies.
I think you went to school on the East Coast and were originally from Iran?
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got here, to the U.S., and a little bit about your career and background, and anything that would be interesting for our audience of entrepreneurs.
Kian: Wow, that’s a long story. I was born and raised in Iran. I went to an American school there. It was shut down after the Revolution. It was called a spy house, so I had to leave.
I finished high school in Greece. I went to the East Coast, like you said, for university. I went to NYU undergrad. Then I joined Bell Labs, so I’m a technology guy. Then I got my Masters in Computer Science while I was in Bell Labs.
I did a bunch of work on the East Coast and then I met my wife. She was in California, so here I am.
Patrick: That was a good reason to move to California.
Kian: Yes, exactly.
Patrick: Were you working for Bell Labs in New Jersey?
Kian: In New Jersey. I was in Middletown.
Patrick: Okay, cool.
Kian: We were the first group, actually, that moved into Middletown, which is a big facility. It’s really cool.
Patrick: That’s awesome.
Kian: I used to play soccer at the Homedale facility, Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons.
Patrick: That’s great. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about Independa? You started the company. What do you guys do? Tell us a little bit about that.
Kian: Yes, I’m the founder of Independa. I did start it. Of course, it takes a village and it took a village to get us this far.
I always give credit to IDO, the design firm, because I went to them in 2009 and asked them the question, “How come 30 years into this, the brand for technology for the elderly is still ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’?”
That was really the basic premise of, “There’s a market here. How come we haven’t done better and what does it take to do better in this marketplace?”
They did their normal great magic and they came back with two things. One was that no one’s put together a holistic system. No one’s put together something that is not a gizmo or a gadget or just does one thing, even though that one thing may be really important.
Examples of one thing are telemedicine, life story recordings, cognitive tools, activity and behavioral tracking or help with activities of daily living.
Patrick: This is all about people who need some type of medical or assisted help and you’re helping them be more independent, as opposed to being in a primary care facility? These are tools all around that?
Kian: Exactly. Everything we do is person-centric, not patient-centric. If you’re in the care of someone in a hospital or a doctor, then you’re a patient.
However, the other 99.99% of the time, you’re trying to stay independent, on your own, and you’re trying to stay in the current stage of care and not go to the next stage of care.
That was one thing they said. No one had put together a holistic, person-centric view versus a patient, episodic-centered view.
The other thing, which was equally important, is that they said, “You need to have social engagement It needs to be fun, engaging, easy and simple.” It’s all about thriving. It’s not about being old or needing help.
Those two items combined to create the DNA of Independa, and that’s been what we’ve done ever since. I always give them credit, which is where it’s due.
We launched based on IDO’s impression, which was absolutely correct. No one had put together this system, which is why no one had taken off as a replacement brand to leverage technology.
Patrick: Is IDO a market research firm? Are they actually the development?
Kian: No. IDO is probably the world’s leading design firm. They do a lot of work in healthcare. They have great deep healthcare expertise.
They’re the folks who designed, for instance, the TiVo remote control. They designed the PalmPilot. They do a lot of major work around design.
It’s really all about, what they call, ideation and usability and really understanding this system and the flow, not just a hardware design. In fact, we went down to the wireframes of the initial product design with them. It was more than just an idea.
Patrick: Did you outsource the whole development effort? You’re this virtual company that had a partner that did most of that? How did you partition the work between your outsource partner and the stuff that you guys did yourself?
Kian: When we worked together with IDO, there wasn’t development at the time. We actually went down to the wire frames, but it wasn’t coding.
By the time we were done there, then we did the coding ourselves at Independa. We have a really strong relationship still with IDO and good friends there, but from there on in, it was Independa doing the development.
Patrick: LG TV, commercial TVs, was a major early partner for you guys, too. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Kian: Sure. LG, in parallel, saw the same marketplace. A little bit differently from their lens, but it was the same problem, which is we have 50 million people in the U.S. who are taking care of someone who is looking to stay independent in their home. That’s a big marketplace there.
We have five million beds in the hospitality market, which LG dominates. We also have 3.6 million beds in senior living, which no one dominates, because there’s no application for it. We have about just under a million hospital beds, which LG also dominates.
They dominate the hospital market. They dominate the hospitality market in commercial TVs and they’re world leaders in this. However, there was no market leader, there was no proper value for the seniors living marketplace.
Patrick: Even though it was a pretty big market based on the numbers.
Kian: It’s a huge market. It is 3.6 million versus aggregate of 5 million on the other side.
They looked at that marketplace and they realized it’s really not about the TV. It’s about the core application in how you deliver that.
A long story short is that we partnered together. They looked everywhere. They found us to be the best fit and having the best message, which again, was the one I just shared with you.
We built a holistic system. What they did- credit to them- is they spent tens of millions of dollars on their end to change the bowels of their market-leading platform, the TV, to accommodate our solution.
They actually paid us NRE dollars and then they also invested in us. What we have together is, what we call, the IndependaTV, which LG calls internally the healthcare TV. It’s a high compliment.
Now we’re marketing that more globally. We started in Canada. LG, this week, has started in the UK. We have some footprint in other parts of the world as well.
It’s a global $130 billion company. We’re part of the firmware now. The same TV that we all see when we travel at the hotel bed now has Independa on the side. They have hospital grade as well, so we’re inside the hospital as well.
Patrick: You’re sharing, I guess, medical information. Are there HIPAA requirements or HIPAA compliance stuff associated with your product? How does that work?
Kian: We don’t call them medical because we’re not intending or should be involved with the FDA, past the health information.
There’s a distinction. Let’s say it’s a Garmin or Fitbit and it’s health and wellness information. You don’t have to go crazy with the FDA. As soon as you start talking about diagnoses and information that doctors then use, you have to go through the FDA.
From our standpoint, we are there to help you thrive as you age, to be more comfortable and safer and live where you are longer. That has some health information, but it’s not medical.
Patrick: It’s more the wellness industry as opposed to the health FDA stuff?
Kian: Right. It’s all about keeping you away from being you know…
Patrick: Which we all want.
Kian: That’s the whole idea. It’s interesting, to be independent, whether you’re elderly or not, is the same thing that we all want. That is to stay healthy and not go to the next stage of care.
No one wants to go to the next stage of care. There is a lot more cost, a lot more anguish and complexity. Who wants to go?
For you and me, it might be episodic, but for someone who might be in their late 70s, 80s or 90s, it might be the difference between independent living and assisted living.
It might be the difference between assisted living and a nursing home. It might be the difference between being able to stay in their own home, which is where 93% of the people want to stay, versus having to go into a community.
We’re totally agnostic on where the person lives. It’s really all about their innate desire to want to stay where they are for as long as possible.
Patrick: This is your marketing message about television that helps you thrive in place. What are the components of that?
I’ve been fortunate enough to walk through a demo of the product. It’s very cool. For our audience, what are the component parts of the holistic product that you deliver?
Kian: There are really three components. One is the real importance of connecting friends and family and loved ones to you, wherever you are.
Often times, the biggest issue actually ends up being social engagement. It’s loneliness and isolation that leads to self-neglect, which leads to medication neglect, which then leads to recidivism back into the system.
Independence, in a large measure, is really many ways defined and driven by how socially engaged I can be. It’s a complex issue, not all of which we can solve with the TV.
For instance, if you stop driving, now you can’t go to church. Now your circle of friends really collapses.
If you become frail, maybe you can’t even go to collect the mail from your doorstep. Now you’ve become a prisoner in your own home.
There are a lot of really deep issues that have to be addressed. At the end of the day, the more isolated you become, the more important it is to actually have human interaction.
People who are isolated typically are sitting in front of their TVs, as we tend to want to just hear the human voice. What we’re doing is we’re taking a commodity appliance that everyone knows how to use. It’s one of the two technologies everyone knows how to use, the TV and the telephone, and we’re turning that into an engagement window.
That social engagement is the first pillar, with picture sharing, video chat, message sharing and life stories, so you can capture someone’s life in audio files and share it.
Patrick: As I understand it, there’s the person who’s being monitored or taken care of and then there’s a primary caregiver. However, there’s a broader social engagement with other friends and family that can be on the platform?
Kian: Exactly. That’s it absolutely. We have a free, downloadable mobile app, as well as unlimited use of web browsers by friends or professionals.
The caregiver, who might be a professional caregiver as well, uses the same platform, except they get to see all of the people under their care. The daughter gets to see only her mom.
There are really three players; the organization, the end user, which is the care recipient and then the friends and family, the circle of care around them. To your point, now all these people are engaged with you and that changes the quality of your life.
The other thing is organizational engagement. If you’re in a senior living community or any kind of organization, it might be homecare, it may be home health, maybe independent living or memory care, there are requirements that you have and goals, and you have staff.
What we do is we actually improve the top line. If you’re trying to sell a unit, the fact is that this is the one amenity that you can offer, where it’s not a swimming pool or a fitness center.
It’s where you live. It’s an amenity that will get used every time you come back into the room versus very few people actually using the swimming pool.
When you go to the marketing session and you look at the pool, it’s always empty, unfortunately. No one’s pumping iron. However, when you come back in after a great meal from a five-star chef, you will be alone maybe in your residence. However, with Independa, you’re never going to be lonely.
That sells that unit, because people don’t want to be leaving their friends and family behind, even as they move from their home of 20 to 30 years into a community.
Patrick: I was thinking primarily market, someone in their home, but even in assisted living or potentially even in a hospital, there are elements of the technology that are important in terms of the social engagement, even if you have someone right there who’s taking care of one pillar of the overall three pillars that you provide.
Kian: Exactly. That’s a great point. The second pillar are the organizational benefits, like top line growth, efficiency with staff and the types of services we provide.
For instance, imagine having your menus right on the TV, or being able to ask for and receive surveys right on the TV. Now as the CEO, you get to know what’s happening with your residents, in a way that’s much more efficient and effective than in the past.
Versus once a year, you need to have someone with a clipboard walk around. In the meantime, you don’t know how people reacted to this major event that you put together, for instance.
Broadcast messages, whether it’s emergencies like a hurricane coming in Florida, could be as simple as this. It’s 5:30. Everyone on the dinner plan gets a reminder so they don’t forget to eat.
We can put together the community calendar right in front of you on the TV. Every one of these communities has a wellness director and they typically run around. About 70% of the time, they’re calling people and knocking on doors to get them to come into the activities they’ve already signed up for. Now we make that searchable right on the TV, so we reduce the inefficiency there.
There are a lot of areas where everyone is happier. The family member is happier because they’re not calling the staff to say, “Could you check in on mom,” because they can now see mom, not just hear mom.
You don’t have to print menus and stuff them under doors, because they’re right there in front of the TV. Those are the organizational engagement benefits. Then last, you touched on this earlier, is the integrated remote care.
It’s really not medical. It’s about health, activity, environmental, fitness, wellness and safety, all combined. I can have threshold-based alerts so I can catch little things before they become big things.
That’s critical to providing more than just independence. We talked about hospitals. In the hospitals in the future, in the medical system in the future, it’s all about value base, which means I’m now incented to keep you away, not to bring you back.
How do I keep you away if you go into a black box outside of my four walls and I don’t know what’s going on? I invest a little bit to help you have a better life.
Also, if you haven’t stepped on the scale for a couple of days and you’re congestive heart failure patient, what if your TV reminds you, “It’s two days, please step on the scale?”
What if you’re not in front of your TV, you’re out and about, and then you get a phone call because you didn’t respond to the TV? What if you still don’t do it? Then you get an alert somewhere.
It could be alert, in this case, going to a nurse who’s taking care of you, because you’re part of a high-risk group.
What if it’s also two hours in the bathroom? It’s not just the health information. What if you walked around all day and didn’t open the fridge? Maybe that goes to your daughter.
This combination of empowering all those who care for you outside and from a distance to help you stay healthy, that’s what Independa provides.
Those are the three pillars. They are social engagement for family and friends, community engagement with top line/bottom line efficiencies and brand improvements, and then integrated remote care.
Patrick: In the integrated remote care and monitoring element of it, let’s say you’re an upper-middle class person and you have a lot of security cameras, sensors and the whole internet of things. Your house already has that.
Let’s say you’re someone who’s more blue collar, how I grew up. My parents don’t have that stuff. They live in a nice home, but they don’t have the sensors and everything like that.
Does that require them to input information? How do you do the remote monitoring, more mainstream, middle-class level of communities?
Kian: One of the design criteria that we have is no one who touches our system does more work than before. That’s critical, especially the elderly person. They should do nothing and learn nothing new, which is why the TV is so transformative.
Unlike password, virus scans, computers and tablets with power issues, this is what you’re in front of anyway. You know how to use a remote control.
That’s a key starting point. In terms of what they have to enter or not, there is anything that they need. For instance, if I have to use a pulse oximeter, I have multiple ways of entering that data into the system.
I could use a wireless pulse oximeter. I don’t have to do anything different. That’s how we would know you haven’t used it.
On the other hand, I could use my 10-year-old pulse oximeter as it is and have data entered using my phone. I can get a call and enter it on a regular basis. I can even enter it right on the TV, using my remote control, or my daughter could be on the phone with me and say, “Please use your pulse oximeter,” and I can enter it right on the mobile app.
We’re totally agnostic. We give you multiple ways. You don’t have to use a pulse oximeter if you’re not using a pulse oximeter already. That’s the key.
What happens is that the daughter calls mom and says, “What was your weight yesterday?” Mom says, “I weigh the same, honey. Don’t worry about me. How are the kids?”
The daughter says, “Mom, this is really serious stuff. I need to know. You keep saying it’s the same. I’m fine.” Literally tens of millions of people have this conversation all the time, probably every day.
What we do is make the quality of the conversation very different, because if mom hasn’t stepped on the scale, we know; she knows.
Now the daughter says, “Mom, you have to step on it.” I then get that data if it’s a wireless scale. If it’s not, she has to enter it or I have to enter it. It’s something specific.
Patrick: Interesting. With the aging population in the U.S. for sure and, I think globally, is this going to be a growing market? How do you see the market evolving over time?
Kian: This was the only market I found, which was huge to begin with and only accelerating forward. That’s a strong statement. How many markets do you have that start huge and then from there take off? That’s the reality of what we have worldwide.
Everyone talks about baby boomers and the hump going through society. It’s really the 85 and above who need the most help, really 75, 85 and 90.
That population is going to double in the next 13 years. You can imagine what’s happening on that side. That’s the echo effect of the baby boomers. The 65 year-olds are great.
Patrick: People are living longer.
Kian: People are living longer. They’re active. It’s global.
We have Florida, which is the rest of us on fast-forward. It’s not like it’s an anomaly. That’s what California’s going to look like in about 15 years, but it’s the way Florida is today.
Then we have Japan, which makes Florida look like a middle school. There are parts of the world that, not just demographically but also in terms of new immigration and people working and tax receipts and so forth, are in much worse shape than we are.
Japan really doesn’t have the population to support their elderly. Whereas we’ve had strong immigration, so we have a much richer tax base, even though the proportions are going smaller all the time.
Patrick: How much money have you raised for the company up to this point? Do you need to raise more growth capital? Where are you on that front?
Kian: We’ve raised a little under $11 million. We’ve gone through our B round. We’re actually doing a really attractive convertible note. That’s a $3 million note. There are some strategics interested in coming in. After that, then we’ll go after our C round for global expansion.
Patrick: Cool. The company has been around how long now?
Kian: Independa was founded, technically, April of 2009. April 9th, I think.
We started coding the middle of 2010. We really went to market with the TV 2014, with LG.
Patrick: The first product launch.
Patrick: You’re not tied to the LG hardware? There are other hardware possibilities for you guys, correct?
Kian: Yes. That’s a great point. We’re tied to our partnership there. They’re a strategic investor and great partners.
However, they’ve created a set-top box, which we call the AnyTV companion. The AnyTV companion could go on any TV and turn it into all the things I just shared with you. It’s very powerful, because, a lot of times, seniors living in communities already have TVs.
Patrick: Yes, you don’t need two TVs.
Kian: Exactly. For new constructions, new and renovated hospitals, renovated senior living, it’s great to put the TV in. If you want to get all the same benefits, you can do that cost effectively using the set-top box.
Patrick: Cool. How do you make money? Is it a royalty-based scheme? Is it a usage-based scheme? How does that work?
Kian: It’s subscription-based per care recipient. You can have unlimited caregivers around that, which is very powerful.
I can have a family of 20 people doing journaling with me, doing life stories with me, sending me pictures, doing video chat with me, managing my medication, managing my calendar, as well as an organization with whatever number of staff doing that.
We don’t charge on any of that. We charge on the per user per month. For example, it could be a person in a senior living community.
Patrick: It’s basically an all-you-can-eat buffet, though, right now. It’s a pretty rich platform. It’s not only a rich platform in terms of what you provide today, you can build other things on that platform for service delivery, life affiliates and things like that. From a roadmap standpoint, how do you think about that?
Kian: That’s a great question. One of things that I didn’t touch upon is the fact that you can deliver any content on this platform, over the broadcast, which is unique. No one else in the world can say that.
You can actually deliver, let’s say, video content. It could be educational. It could be entertainment. It could be compliance related. You can deliver that right on to the person’s TV, again using a set-top box or the LG IndependaTV.
With that, you start expanding into other areas. We deliver any kind of web content. What about e-commerce? What if you can reorder your incontinence products right through the TV, so you don’t have to ask someone about it? It’s a private interaction right there on the TV.
The possibilities of turning the TV into this platform, as you said, which we have done, are huge. We’re looking for big partners to do that.
At Independa, as an emerging company, our goal is that we’re a technology company and we have this platform. Then the right partners take this platform and they really run with it.
Patrick: Sure. It sounds super exciting. You’re still in the very front end of it. That’s awesome.
Tell me a little bit about something people don’t know about you. You obviously have a lot of experience now. We talked a bit before we started the program. You’ve seen a lot and done a lot.
Kian: I appreciate that. You mentioned I was born in Tehran. I’m Iranian-American. I haven’t been back since 1980. It’s been a long, long time. That’s one thing people may not know.
The other thing that’s kind of cool and maybe that others wouldn’t know, and I’ve long since given up, but for a while I was the chief driving instructor for BMW for the New York chapter.
I did a lot of that back east and I did a little bit of that when I came to California. However, once you become a dad, you take a 20-year hiatus, which is just great. That’s another thing. I love soccer. I’ve played soccer my whole life. I played for NYU.
Patrick: Do you still play now?
Kian: No. I actually injured myself. I would play and I hope to play soon, once my injury gets better. It’s actually a bone-on-bone hip thing, so I have to take care of it. I watch soccer now, though.
Patrick: Is there anything that I missed about Independa or anything you want to highlight for our audience of entrepreneurs and startup CEOs from your experience? Do you have any pearls of wisdom based on all the things that you’ve done?
Kian: I don’t know if I have pearls of wisdom. I think everyone knows the biggest thing is really persistence. It all sounds great and we’re going great places, but it’s not always great every moment.
When we got our Series A, everyone really complimented me. It was a tough time for people to raise money. They said, “That was great. Great job.”
My point then, which I’ll share with the audience, is two days before we got the Series A, I wasn’t an idiot and two days after getting the Series A, I wasn’t a genius. You really have to persevere and keep going. You have to raise the money and you have to take care of your investors.
If you’re on to something really special, it takes a while for people to see that. If you’re building a better mousetrap, people know how the mousetrap works.
If you’re really doing something that’s out of the norm, like taking a TV and turning it into something else, then you have to deal with the fact that someone didn’t wake up that morning and figure out, “How do I get Independa into my senior living community?”
Along those lines, I would say you have to learn never to take excitement and mistake it for opportunity. That’s probably very common, because a lot of times people get very excited, myself included, on what the possibilities are and what the return on investment is.
That’s true. People get excited with you. Yet, is there a budget? What’s driving the compelling even? How many leaders are there in your marketplace? Are they pioneers? Are they leaders versus laggards?
Be smart around being efficient with your resources to get those leaders, make a big showcase example out of them as you move forward. Those are the few things that come to mind as well as persistence.
Patrick: Awesome. Thank you so much, Kian. This has been really great. This is Patrick Henry from QuestFusion with the Real Deal…What Matters.
Kian: Thank you, Patrick. I enjoyed it.
This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion, with The Real Deal…What Matters