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PODCAST – The One Thing: Andrea Palmer, Awake Labs

Wednesday, November 1, 2023
This week on The One Thing podcast by The Horton Group, our hosts, Robin Bettenhausen and Tom Kallai, spoke with Andrea Palmer, CEO and founder of Awake Labs.

This week on The One Thing podcast by The Horton Group, our hosts, Robin Bettenhausen and Tom Kallai, spoke with Andrea Palmer, CEO and founder of Awake Labs.

Awake Labs is a visionary company dedicated to revolutionizing the field of mental health and enhancing the lives of the IDD community, including individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges. Their mission is to help people with disabilities perceive their emotions and connect to others easily by using wearable devices like a smartwatch and data-driven solutions to help empower individuals and caregivers alike. This pioneering work that leads them to live full lives in the community of their choice, as independently as possible, aligns seamlessly with our commitment to improving lives and fostering inclusivity.

“You don’t have to have all the answers but it is so beneficial to be asking the questions of what can we be doing, either to solve this problem or to help this person live more independently,” Andrea says.

Tune in as we shine a spotlight on Awake Labs’ dedication to transforming the landscape of mental health support.


Hello and welcome to the one thing podcast presented by Horton, where we handle employee benefits and risk advisory Solutions. My name is Tom Kallai, half of your hosting team and with me is Robin Bettenhausen, my other half. Hey, Robin, have you gotten a chance to mess around with ChatGPT at all?

I did. So, I was curious because mostly because I have kids in school and I kept hearing these rumors about how you could, you know, cheat on tests and things. So I gave it a whirl, it’s super interesting, we able to cheat on any test. Well I didn’t have any test to use but I basically asked it to write me an eight line poem about. I think it was like butterflies or something and this very factual and and interesting. Well, it’s my eye.
So I had it I just had it, write me a joke, you go. You want to hear it?

I do.

Why did the insurance agents start a podcast?


Because they wanted to cover all the topics. It’s not that good. I think it’s I think that’s like Laffy Taffy level humor but nevertheless I think it’s undeniable that technology is becoming even more inner woven with our lives and this includes the Human Service space. So today, we have a very special guest with us. She’s the CEO and founder of Awake Labs. It’s a technology startup that’s making an impact in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities coming to us from our neighbor to the north, Canada. I’m very pleased to introduce Andrea Palmer. Andrea, welcome to the podcast!

Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Thanks for being here. Now, I’m lucky enough to have talked with you before, and I’m familiar with the work that you do.

But for those of us who aren’t as privileged as I am to have met you, can you give us a quick rundown on what Awake Labs’ mission is?

Absolutely. Our mission at Awake Labs is to help people with disabilities, to be seen, heard and understood and to live full lives in the community of their choice as independently as possible. And so, we’re starting with a platform that helps manage or measure in real-time their emotions and how strong their emotions are. Often when we start to get anxious or agitated, it’s really hard for us to learn. It’s hard for us to have to build trust with people, to feel comfortable in the environment that we’re living in, to get a job, to respond calmly to people because there’s something that’s bothering us underneath. And so, we help understand when that is starting to escalate for that individual to be able to start to learn their own self-regulation, or learn more about their, how they’re feeling and how to manage that, but also to help direct support professionals and teachers or paraprofessionals or family members to provide support to their loved ones when they need it the most. In order to help them, you know, maybe get more independence and live in their community, or be able to actually absorb, what’s being taught to them in school, or be able to kind of work through some of that anxiety around getting a job or being around people in busy settings and maintain their dignity, to be able to feel like they have more control over their own lives in order to participate fully in their community.

You mentioned that you’re using data to track that. And I feel like as a mom of three kids, I can sometimes sense when they are agitated, but by that point, they’re already at agitation point, right?

So how are you using technology to track that?

Great question. We use a smartwatch. Right now we have. Yep exactly. We have a Fitbit smart watches and Samsung smart watches that have our app on it. We have a clinically validated and patented algorithm that was designed by scientists at Holland Bloorview Hospital here in Toronto. We put that algorithm on the watch. That’s what measures a baseline for each of the users. So it has some personalization there and then looks at changes in that baseline over time. And when we detect that that’s increasing either too quickly or, you know, above a high threshold, then that’s when we send an alert to a mobile phone. And that could be used by the person who is experienced, who’s wearing the watch who’s experiencing those strong emotions, or one of the people in their care circle, who would be there to actually step in and check in on them. And very often – I hear what you said, Robin – very often, we are told that they get the notification before they start to notice those subtle behavior changes that go along with that agitation, or anxiety, or anger. And so, it’s when interventions are more effective because you’re not already in that state where, you know, you kind of have to let it burn out sometimes. And so, being able to measure what’s going on in their body and then send that alert is how we’re collecting that data right now.

That’s so huge. I’m a dad to a son who is on the autism spectrum, and I feel like me and my wife kind of a developed, like, a sixth sense as to like, “Oh, we can kind of tell, he’s did, you know, unregulated, today’s a little off,” and then we might give the teachers a heads up or something like that. But this was something that I heard about him I was like, “Oh my gosh, how do I get him involved in this?” Because not everybody has developed that sixth sense. And if they are able to then replicate that with with technology and then address it earlier. I feel like that could be hugely impactful on just like you said, like his ability to learn and how they can kind of talk him down, or or get him to calm down before it exhibits in like behaviors.

Yeah, exactly. And even if you did have the sixth sense, if you’re in the other room you might not notice it or if, you know, someone else is watching him for a little bit or definitely in a more kind of community-based residential settings, where there’s direct support staff, or at school, if there’s high turnover, or there’s just a lot of other things going on, it’s hard to understand and learn those things about that person and always be there to notice them. So, helping kind of everyone developed that sixth sense faster is part of the part of what we do.

Yeah. I mean, you can see it like you said with DSPs or even like respite care providers, all of those would be hugely helpful.

Definitely. We’ve also seen – sorry to interrupt you – but we’ve also seen cases where you know, someone who has a lot of DSPs or support workers and their life maybe has a preferred person who that DSP like really understands how they want to be supported and is able to adapt how they interact with them and they build that trust really quickly. But looking over the data and comparing it maybe to some of the staffing schedules or incident reports or things like that, they’re able to tell that this is a preferred DSP and that person was able to train the others to say, “This is how this individual actually wants to receive support and this is how I built the trust,” so everyone was able to kind of level up and build that trust with that person faster.

And then we tracked over time to say “Oh yeah this is they are responding to this positive actively and we can see it in the biometric data,” that we’re getting.

Yes. In this case that the person who is being supported was wearing the watch, actually started to go to her staff and say “I need help,” or “I need a hug,” or “I’m not feeling well.” And so yes, sometimes you know, it’s in the data but then sometimes it just it presents itself in other ways that they were able to build that trust faster. Develop that relationship where she felt comfortable with them and and felt like they were actually there to support her and not just control her. And then she graduated out of using it, which is an incredible outcome that they all felt like they had gotten to the point where they could have that communication and build that trust so that they didn’t need to use the technology to do that. Yeah.

Yeah, that’s amazing. And, you know, it’s interesting that it it’s I mean, obviously piqued my interest because it’s in the IDD space or intellectual developmental disability space. But you know, one thing I noticed on your website – and I think you hit the nail on the head – is that, that is a space that is traditionally overlooked and underestimated and I totally agree with that.

What is it about that space that you saw as maybe an opportunity or a void where you could provide some better service?

I think that’s this comes back to a little bit about the history of Awake Labs and where we came from. My co-founder and I were students and this was part of a school project initially. And as part of that project, we went out to the community and, you know, established, “Here’s a problem, here’s maybe how we could solve it,” and really try to understand how that problem exists in the lives of people, we talked to a lot of people in the IDD community and the autism support community, people with Autism, people, family members or loved ones, who are autistic. And we came up with this idea and then the course ended and the community kept coming back to us and emailing us and sayin, “Oh, but you’re really doing this, right? But we actually need it. We actually need this thing”

This isn’t just proof of concept, right? This is actually happening?

This is yeah, yeah, yeah. Like you’re, we’re gonna do this together, right? So there was that immediate buy-in. And for people who we spoke to about it, who have lived, it who have either lived it themselves or they have lived in supporting family members or maybe worked in this industry, they get it and they get it so quickly. And I think that that was one of the drivers that really kept us going in, developing this, because we just knew there was so much need there. It took us a long time to figure out exactly what it needed to look like in order to be useful. In certain situations as an example, we like initially, like, as soon as we detected an increase, we would send an alert. And if you told me as soon as I was like, scared or something that I was that it happened, like I know, of course. Give me some time to figure out how it’s actually going. So we had to adjust, you know, certain things about it in order to make it more useful.

But then in 2018, I sustained a concussion of brain injury wasn’t my first it, but it was the the one that maybe impacted me the most. I’m still I have post-concussion symptoms, even all these years later, but I know how quickly the…if I was already over stimulated or if something, you know, started to overstimulate me, how quickly I could get kind of agitated and then how quickly – again, any any other overstimulation would like, send me into that spiral, right? And we didn’t have Awake Labs wasn’t around, we didn’t have the platform the way that it is today. But I really understand how valuable it is to have that check of just being like, “Oh, something’s happening here.” You’re like, even just like, “Snap out of whatever is going on in your brain that you’re ruminating on.” Or the overstimulation, maybe go outside, remove yourself in that environment. And so that also was just like…it would have, not necessarily made me heal faster, but it would have made me heal better and feel better as I was kind of going through that recovery. And I think that that’s a really big thing that, you know. In the IDD space, the intellectual developmental disability or the reason that people are receiving supports, it’s not it’s not to get rid of anxiety or stress all together – it’s to give them more tools to be able to manage it so they live better and they live happier and they’re able to do the things that they want to do.

That’s a perfect lead-in to the next question that we had, which is really, how do you help individuals set goals or achieve smart goals by using the Awake Lab platform?

Because I think you had shared that story about someone who sort of graduated off of it. So they’re obviously were some goals in place. So, tell us a little bit about about that.

So we will get as involved with people as they kind of want us to be. But we really also want to respect people’s own agency and privacy and ability to invite us into their space. And we recognize my background, I’m an engineer. I am not a counselor or a DSP or psychologist or you know, someone who is quote unquote, an expert in the space. And I also don’t know the people who were adopting the Smartwatch. So, we work with the people who kind of bring this…this is like, a roundabout way of saying it, but like, if they think that this person John would benefit from using the Smartwatch, we work with John if he wants us to and/or his support team in order to understand how it would benefit him, how it would fit in his care plan, what goals that he wants to have as much or as little as they want us to be. Because we are not the experts. We have not met John and most cases or provided support to him or know what he likes or doesn’t like, or what his triggers are. So, we try really hard, not to over impose in those environments. And then, unlike the privacy side, we only collect the information that we need to provide the service. And we don’t ask for more data than is required – especially from the personal perspective. And then we help trying to – from like the care team perspective – give them more more tools and more understanding, but really let them determine how it’s being used and how how John wants to use it in those cases.

Yeah, yeah, we do all have ownership over their own goals and how they’re feeling about it. I love that

Right? And plus, if you make a goal that you want to do something but maybe there are some obstacles in the way of achieving that goal, it’s hard to manage those obstacles unless we can identify what the triggers for them are. And that’s I feel like where Awake Labs comes in and can be hugely impactful to say, “Here’s where you’re being affected. What can we do to manage that to get you where you want to be?”

Yeah, absolutely. And as you said before, Tom like often…you say like behavior is communication. And so for people who maybe don’t communicate verbally or don’t communicate verbally, super clearly or you know, a lot…understanding how they’re feeling or what they mean through their behavior is a big part of that. And so because, you know, they might have an outburst or something like that, it’s not…it doesn’t mean that they want to do that. It means that something’s going on and they’re trying to get your attention and tell you it or something’s going on inside of them. And so it’s also so, helping them understand that this big…maybe you’re not getting a job or you’re not, you don’t want to go to the mall, because you don’t want to have this like big kind of behavior, but helping them understand that is a way to help you kind of manage that and know when you need to leave or when might be a good time to do those things that you want to do, while maintaining the dignity of not having that outburst or needing to communicate in those ways because there’s something you can’t control.

Yeah, and I think it’s very cool that and very applicable in the IDD space, but you mentioned also like you see the effects of it based on, you know, post-concussion symptoms. So, how do you see Awake Labs technology kind of branching out even further from the IDD space.

I mean it’s a good question and it’s definitely something that we we’ve talked about. Like, I think we use the term now cognitive disabilities instead of just the IDD space, so we’re kind of including brain injury and dementia care in in that collective pot as well, but there’s is not because there’s not enough need in the IDD space. There is so much need, not only for what we do, but also to help people understand more about what’s going on, for other assistive technology for integration. So, there is opportunity to expand outside the IDD space but there’s also so much need for innovation in this space as well. But yeah, I mean that for for a lot of people who have anxiety, it can be a really big barrier to interacting with other people or going out, or again, learning or building relationships, but especially when it in care situations for, for people who have either like a big transition and their health, maybe they were diagnosed with a chronic condition or something like that, then there’s always more that you can do to try and like feel. Better emotionally, even though there’s a lot going on, there’s still like, you know, stuff, you can control stuff, you can’t control. So there’s I think that there’s a lot of opportunity both in the IDD space and outside of it.

And then we’ve also had some conversations with folks in the child welfare system or space (both child and adult welfare) about, you know, reuniting families about giving more tools for management of those emotions to help people be able to come back together. And caregivers — there’s a caregiver shortage, but also our caregivers are like very, very burnt out. And both in the IDD space and in the aging space, there’s a caregiver shortage and we need to find more ways to help people to live more independently where we, not to eliminate the need for human caregivers but to keep the humans to provide things that, you know, humans can uniquely do while there are other kind of accessible or enabling technology that allow them to still live in those independent environments as for as long as possible.

Yeah, and offer supports. And I think it’s a great point that you make, even with – I would say for my kids who are neurotypical – they can’t always articulate their emotions, you know? So, anything like that is I’ve been in an extreme situation like families reuniting and things like that…it could be hugely helpful.

Yeah. A friend of mine said recently, you know, we use the term “calm down” so often like when someone starting to get overwhelmed, whether it’s someone who’s neurotypical, or not we say like “Calm down, calm down. We’ll figure this out whatever it is.” But how do you know how to calm down when you don’t actually know what calm feels like? I think we do a lot to help people understand when they’re getting stressed or angry, or scared or something. But like what does calm? What is my body doing when I’m calm? And how understanding that will help them return to that state better. I think it’s a really important thing. So that’s something I think about all the time now, when we’re we’re developing the the product and adding new features is making sure that we think about that, about what we’re asking people to do and like. Does it actually make sense is a skill that they have, or can we help them build it?

What are some of those new features? And I guess as a broader question, how do you see technology continuing to evolve and be used within the IDD space?

Whoa, big question! I mean, I think to answer the second part first, there’s so many opportunities for technology in the IDD space. I think we have kind of just started to scratch the surface when we think about Smart Homes and things like that to help people live more independently, maybe have a say or control over who comes in their house or not with a Ring doorbell. Control the temperature of their apartment through a smart thermostat. I learned recently, accidentally, that there are smart irons that turn off if you leave them on for too long without using it. So, thankfully that hotel had adopted them.

But all of those things are things maybe we take for granted and we’re able to put into our own homes, Alexa or, you know, Google Home or things like that that have an opportunity to help people in the IDD space as well. But those are just like getting us to maybe parody or equity with everyone who has more control over their lives.

A big barrier to that though is still having access to Internet in those homes, having access to a smartphone or a smart computer. But there are a lot of programs and funding to enable people to get Wi-Fi or LTE or whatever it is in their home in order to adopt that. But what are the barriers to it is making sure people know that there are resources out there in order to do that. There are assistive technology, lending libraries. So, if you think something might be useful to you in every single state, there’s somewhere, you can go to borrow a tool for a period of time, in order to understand if it would work for you or not. And then those people often also understand the funding structures to get it to you. And then states have been allowing and creating more ways for people to get access assistive technology covered through some of the home community based service waivers and really pushing for tech adoption in those spaces. Because as another friend, Brian Heart from LED based in Ohio, he says that you know, “Even if we had a billion dollars more in Ohio to actually improve the Human Services industry or the IDD care industry, we don’t have a team or thousand DSPs coming up who will be able to provide those services.” So we need to actually look to assistive technology in order to provide those Services because we just don’t have humans and human capital in order to do that.

In terms of what we’re doing at Awake Labs, I mean there’s so much that we can still do. Right now, we have the Smartwatch app, we have the mobile app, we have like some data collection the mobile app, but they’re often these like long and complex care plans and strategies. that the team has put in place that maybe sit in a binder on a shelf somewhere. So, putting that into the app so it’s at their fingertips, so when they say or they see that there is an escalation happening, they can remember what works for this person with this person wants to how they want to receive care in that moment, when they’re already starting to get escalated. And then, we base it off of the biometrics that were measuring in the moment. But there’s a lot of opportunity to pull in other sources of things that we know create stress or anxiety or can affect it for sure. Like, how are you eating? How are you sleeping? How is the weather? Did you get exercise in or did you not? So there’s a lot of opportunity I think, as well, to pull in some of that information to help people better understand how they’re feeling and when it might be a good day or a bad day in order to engage in certain activities.

Yeah. And I think that’s hugely impactful too because with DSP work, oftentimes, its 24-hour care and we’ve got shifts and people hand off, and the communication may not be there. This person seems a little deregulated today or maybe elevated. So, having a way to track that and then identify triggers can only help. And then it’s funny you mentioned the, you know, the assistive technology in Smart Homes, which I think a lot of us think of is just like, “Oh, luxury,” or “Look at this, cool thing I can control my lights and my temperature for my phone,” could be make or break or make all the difference in the world to somebody else. So that’s very interesting to hear and I never thought about it that way.

Andrea. I mean, we can’t thank you enough for joining us today. And as we bring this thing in for a landing, what is the one thing that you would like IDD providers to know about Awake Labs?

I think maybe I’ll expand it just from Awake Labs to to technology in general. I would say that the the one thing is that you don’t have to have all the answers but it is so beneficial to be asking the questions of what can we be doing, either to solve this problem or to help this person live more independently. There are other places you can go to get those resources or consultation or things like that. But it’s really kind of shifting that mindset of like what else is there or what opportunities do we have to help this person live more independently, knowing that you know you have a trillion things on your plate as well. Whether it’s with staffing shortages and Recruitment and training and things, but making sure that we are not letting that affect kind of how we’re providing that direct support and really trying to make that piece better for the person who’s using it and bringing in the the people who, you know, maybe do the text set up and will be able to provide the the support there. So, I think that they’re just a lot of opportunities and and very often, we feel like we need to have all the answers but if you empower people to also ask those questions, then there’s a lot of room for creativity and innovation.

Perfect! That was perfect! Love it! Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you for tuning in and we’ll see you next time on The One Thing.

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