New Ways That Animals – Even Robo-Animals – Can Help Improve Our Mental Health
You know that one of the big passions that Jean and I have is the fight against Alzheimer's. We have been very actively engaged in this space for, oh, goodness, 20 years or more. And as you know, the fight against Alzheimer's has not been going well. There is a huge amount of money being devoted to this effort. $6 billion so far has been raised by government as well as academia and companies in the effort to develop drugs that will serve as a treatment, as a cure, as a vaccine. And there really has been very little progress to date in this area. And it's a huge struggle because there are millions of Americans who suffer from Alzheimer's and many, many millions more who are going to if we don't eradicate this disease. The odds are one in 10 Americans at age 60 will develop symptoms of Alzheimer's. By the time you're 82, the odds are one in three. By age 90, it's one out of two of us are going to develop Alzheimer's disease. It is 100% fatal and the most expensive disease to treat because patients require 24/7 care.
Ric Edelman: In most cases, especially in early onset Alzheimer's, the patients are ambulatory. They're physically able to move around, which means you can turn on a stove, drive a car, pick up a firearm. This makes it very dangerous for them as well as those around them. And this is why the focus that Jean and I have is not merely on the issue of Alzheimer's research and an effort to find a diagnostic tool or a treatment or a cure. But also we devote equal amounts of energy and attention to the notion of caregivers because the overwhelming majority of patients are being cared for free by family and friends, Many caregivers give up their careers in order to provide care for their loved ones. What I wanted to do now is to share with you one of the investments that we've made in this space. And so I'm very happy to welcome on to the program Tom Stevens. He is CEO of Tombot. Tom, welcome to the program.
Tom Stevens: Thank you for having me.
Ric: As I mentioned, I am an investor in Tombot, and I'm also serving on the board of directors. Tom is doing something I think is rather unique in the Alzheimer's marketplace. Tom is building a robot. Her name is Jennie. She looks like a Labrador retriever. And if you hear some yelping and barking in the background, that's Jennie that you're listening to. If you go to our website, TheTruthAYF.com, we've got video of this conversation that Tom and I are having and there's Jennie front and center. Tom, share with us what led you to start the company.
Tom: In 2011 my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's dementia, and I had to take away her dog for safety reasons. That was a pretty rough day and it really damaged our relationship. Every day it was, “Where's my dog? Why can't I have my dog? When am I getting my dog back?” That led me to start looking around for substitutes for live animal companions. But I didn't find anything that she liked or would respond to, so I wondered if technology might play a role.
Ric: And that led to your development of Jennie, a robotic dog. Jennie's remarkably realistic looking.
Tom: So we did three rounds of customer studies with hundreds of seniors with dementia. They have a very strong preference for realism and appearance and texture, but most importantly, behaviors. We had no idea how to do that. So we teamed up with Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and with their help, we're making what we believe to be as the world's most realistic robotic animal. And she's fully interactive. She can tell how and where she's being touched. She can tell the difference between a simple touch, a slow caress, a vigorous pet, and being hugged. She can feel herself being moved and respond as a real dog would in that context.
Ric: So how does Jennie help somebody who has dementia?
Tom: So basically it's the desire to care for the robot as if it were a real dog and makes them feel good and ultimately relieves the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.
Ric: So in other words, this robot helps calm the patient, helps them feel better.
Tom: Absolutely. And it really is about the mechanism of wanting to care for the dog.
Animals Can Help People Cope With Other Mental Illnesses Too
Ric: So it strikes me that Jennie would be useful beyond Alzheimer's patients for patients who have other mental health adversities.
Tom: It's a great point. About a billion people around the world suffer from some serious mental health disorder that includes anxiety, depression, bipolar, PTSD, schizophrenia. Children with autism and children and adults with cognitive issues all struggle with many of the same things with their mental health that a senior with dementia does. And so what the research shows is that live animals can make improvements in each of those mental health conditions. But many of those people are not able to care for a live animal and therefore a robot can be an effective substitute. About 30% of our preorder and waitlist customers have actually come in for other uses other than dementia.
Ric: So what exactly is it that Jennie can do? I mean, she's not able to walk around, so what are her functions?
Tom: So Jennie is designed as a lap dog. It can listen, it can move. It can pay attention to conversations. It can be available for petting. And that's really what Jennie does.
Ric: She basically keeps the patient company.
Tom: That's right. She's designed to stay within easy reach, either on somebody's lap or on a table or chair close by or on a sofa, so that she's always there to help them soothe and just give them something to do.
Ric: So describe her dimensions.
Tom: So Jennie will be about 14 inches from the tip of her nose to the base of her tail. Will weigh around 5 lbs. My mother, she liked to carry around her robot like a football, Just tuck it underneath her arm and go for a walk room to room, going outside or other supervised outings. She became inseparable from her robot, and we realized that the robot needed to be small enough and portable enough that she could do that comfortably without posing a fall risk to her during those situations.
Ric: Jennie is fully functional and does what you want it to do, but she's not really designed to be manufactured in quantity. And that's the next step that you're engaging in.
Tom: Yes, exactly right. This Jennie is rather fragile. We need this to be manufacturable efficiently, inexpensively, so that as many people can afford the robot as possible. And so that was really the engineering effort that we've been engaged in over the last 12 months, is to improve all the mechanical subsystems, all the electronic subsystems, all in effect, to make them more durable, pass the safety certifications and also make them manufacturable at scale.
Ric: And durability is an issue because it's not unheard of for an Alzheimer's patient to take Jennie and throw her across the room.
Tom: My mother was the test case for all of our early prototypes and we learn lots of things the hard way. We learned that people are likely to feed the robot. My mom fed her prototype chocolate pudding, so we realized we're going to need to be able to clean the robot effectively. But in a fit of anger, she got upset and took her robot and threw it into the wall and broke it into a couple of different pieces. So we realized that even if someone is going to be careful with the robot just falling off their lap or falling off a table, falling out of bed is going to be a frequent occurrence and so needs to be able to recover from those events without damage or without degrading the performance of the robot.
Ric: Jennie is not merely for the patient, but it provides some value to the caregiver as well, right?
Tom: Absolutely. So about 83% of seniors with dementia live at home and are cared for by an unpaid family member. Oftentimes that person has other duties around the house, like cooking or cleaning or simply needing to go to the restroom without worrying about mom going into the kitchen and starting a fire. And so the robot does a couple of things on behalf of the caregiver. First of all, it engages them, it gives them something to do. But we also realized early on that a senior with dementia loses the ability to function as their own patient advocate. With the doctor, we would take my mom into the doctor knowing full well she had all kinds of issues that were going on. The doctor would say, Nancy, how have you been since the last time I saw you? And she would simply say, 'fine'. We need the robot to be able to capture information that assists in communicating to the doctor what's going on. And so Jennie will be the first robot of any kind that helps monitor for safety and health. And our initial target will be for Sundowning syndrome. Sundowning is where the dementia person becomes especially confused and disoriented late in the day. And we're working with the Center for Geriatric Innovation at Cleveland Clinic on developing the user interface so that doctors can quickly understand what's happening with that person and change treatment courses so that they try to get more even cognitive levels, particularly late in the day.
Ric: We're talking with Tom Stevens, the CEO of Tombot, who is building a robotic dog for the benefit of Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers. Tom, tell us what the cost of Jennie will be.
Tom: We haven't finalized pricing. A lot of that will do on be determined by our final costs of manufacturing. But we're targeting her to be in the $4,500 range and we're looking to have Medicare and Medicaid as well as the private insurers participate with reimbursements.
Ric: And when are you expecting Jennie to become available?
Tom: We're looking at shipments in early 2024.
Ric: And can people preorder Jennie now?
Tom: If people go to our website, Tombot.com, you'll see a section for reserving a robot. There's no commitment. You're just putting your name on our list so that we know to contact you as robots become available. So we've been quite popular with the media, which is generating a lot of enthusiasm for buying robots.
Ric: So you can see why Jean and I are very enthusiastic about Tombot and why we have decided to become investors in the company and why I'm serving on the board to assist Tom in his efforts to grow the company. And so we are hopeful that over the next couple of years Jennie will make it to the marketplace and be of value in service to Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers. One thing I'll mention as an aside is that Tombot is in the process of raising more capital right now. And if you are curious about the fundraising that it's engaging in right now, you can go to Republic.com/Tombot. I am not requesting that you invest. I'm not suggesting that you invest. I think you might find it of interest out of curiosity. And I do encourage you, if you have someone in your family who is struggling with Alzheimer's, that you take a look at Jennie and see if it's something that might be of value to your patient as well as to your patient's caregivers. That's Tombot.com. Tom Stevens, thanks so much for joining us on the show today.
Tom: Thank you so much, Ric. Say bye bye.
Ric Edelman: You can watch, read or listen to the full interview. And if you watch, you'll get to see Jennie in action, not just hear her yelping. Go to TheTruthAYF.com. And you're probably listening to this radio show on the radio because well, yeah, it's a radio show. But did you know it's also a podcast? So if you haven't heard the news, I'm going to be continuing this show as a podcast only starting January 1st, and it's now going to be a daily podcast. You can subscribe wherever you download your podcasts at iTunes, Spotify, Apple, Google, wherever, and of course, my own website, TheTruthAYF.com.