MIT grad Victor Wang has created a way to battle loneliness and improve mental health with a high-tech weapon: talking dogs and cats. His "virtual pet therapy" start-up is called GeriJoy. Wang thinks it will one day be worth millions and help change how we think about health care. CNBC gave him 60 seconds to prove it. Can he pull it off? Check out the video to see his talking dog in action and judge for yourself.
GeriJoy features an app with cartoon-like animals capable of engaging in full-blown conversations, reacting to speech as well as touch. And though the “animals” may be cute, they are on a serious mission to improve the lives of seniors suffering from loneliness, depression and early-stage dementia.
Wang, who is the 25-year old CEO of GeriJoy, said the company's virtual companions can make a big difference for seniors, particularly the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s, as well as those who love and care for them.
Wang told CNBC he was inspired to create the app out of a desire to be more connected to his aging grandmother, who lives in Taiwan. “[GeriJoy’s] tablet-based service relieves stress from families by providing companionship for older loved ones 24/7,” he said.
According to GeriJoy’s website, the app delivers "virtual pet therapy ... without any smells, allergies, cleaning up, bites, or food and veterinary bills."
GeriJoy's digital dogs and cats can engage users in conversations about anything from their daily activities to specifics about their family. The digital pet can hold interactive conversations in which it can show family photos and even delivers messages from family members.
Wang believes this engagement, and the around-the-clock connection it can provide is the future of health care. “Your loved one doesn’t even need to know what a tablet or the internet is," said Wang but whether he knows what it is or not, grandpa will need a Wi-Fi-connected tablet to use the GeriJoy app (available on Android and Mac).
How Does It Work?
The service is designed to be purchased by a family member or caretaker, who uploads specific information about the senior and facts about the family, plus photos and any other details that can customize the therapy and make the interactive conversations more personally relevant. The app’s talking cats and dogs connect the senior to a GeriJoy staffer: In other words, a human being is on the other side of that digital dog or cat, listening, engaging in conversation, delivering information, pictures, updates, messages and responding to questions in real time.
“This helps to keep older loved ones in the loop about what’s going on in the family, and for seniors with Alzheimer’s, [it] can be very helpful in reinforcing family memories and relationships,” GeriJoy’s website says.
All of the pet interactions are logged and made available to family members and caretakers in reports they can access online.
"We're excited by this technology because not only does it improve quality of life for older adults by engaging them through companionship, family photos and conversation, but also it helps caregivers by providing real-time reports and peace of mind,” Wang said.
Besides serving as a friendly conversation partner, “a GeriJoy companion can provide always-available supervision, actively call out to the elder to check if things are OK, and if not, intelligently contact caregivers and emergency services,” Wang said.
Wang credits his app with helping uncover one of its users being abused by a caregiver. Since that incident, the company has focused more on improving its alerts, which is pushing it into competition with companies specializing in these types of services, such as Life Alert.
GeriJoy's 24/7 virtual pet therapy service costs $99 dollars a month.
In the above video, Power Pitch host Tyler Mathisen expressed concerns about the amount of the monthly fee, but Wang said he believes it’s a fair price and that his virtual pets can supplement other health care services that are much more expensive. “People often spend $2,000 or $3,000 a month on home care alone. If you go to an assisted living facility, you could be paying $7,000 a month; $99 is nothing compared to that,” said Wang.
Can A Talking Dog Really Help Fight Disease?
The company points to anecdotal data suggesting that virtual pet therapy works, but there’s no scientific evidence to show that GeriJoy improves mental or emotional health. Wang anxiously awaits the conclusion of an independent study currently underway at Pace University that’s designed to measure the clinical impact of the virtual pets on loneliness in older adults.
"This unique study could help pioneer a future in which even the nearly 1 million American Alzheimer's patients who live by themselves do not need to be alone," said Wang in a company press release.
Wang told CNBC the company is currently in an open round of funding, and he cannot talk specific numbers. So far, GeriJoy has raised less than $1 million with investments by health accelerator Blueprint Health @bphealth, and angel investors Kristopher Brown and Esther Dyson @edyson. Wang would not disclose how many customers are using GeriJoy but told CNBC, “Beyond our pilot sites in New York, GeriJoy is currently being used in nursing and assisted-living facilities in greater Boston, and we are on the brink of landing our first B2B sales in other states.”
Will Victor Wang's @VictorHSW virtual pets revolutionize health care? Take a look at his 60-second Power Pitch and judge for yourself along with Power Pitch panelists: CNBC’s Tyler Mathisen @TylerMathisen; Tevi Troy @TeviTroy, former deputy secretary with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services @HHSGov; and Stephen Kraus @stephenkraus, a partner with Bessemer Venture Partners @BessemerVP.
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