Han, 83, on entrepreneurship and winning EUR 10K funding for his app which keeps elderly people and their families connected

In December 2019, Han Van Doorn, 83, won EUR 10,000 as the first winner of Start Up Plus – an online learning programme for entrepreneurs over 50. Han’s idea was for ‘Are you okay today’, an app which monitors the behaviour of elderly people living alone, and alerts carers to any alarming changes in behaviour that could indicate a fall, or another emergency.

Han felt inspired to create the app after it emerged that his son was worried about his Dad being at home alone. He said, “My son Matthijs regularly called me with an excuse that I didn’t like, and I got the feeling that he was checking on me. He called because he was worried about his old father.” Although Han values his independence and didn’t like the idea of being checked up on, he too often wondered what would happen should he fall. How long would it take someone to find him?

Having spent five years looking after his wife who had dementia, Han, who lives in Uithoorn, The Netherlands, also understands that having a caring responsibility can be a lot to cope with on your own. He says, “I look back on that time of my life with great satisfaction, but it was very heavy. So, I decided that I wanted to create a system that could support voluntary carers mentally.”

‘Are you okay today’ is a free app that works by connecting to the electricity meter in an elderly person’s home. It then learns their behaviour, for example, how often they use certain electrical appliances. If there’s a deviation from a person’s normal behaviour, then first the elderly person is prompted to confirm that they are okay. If they don’t respond, then the traffic light in the app changes from green to orange, and a carer is alerted so that they can check on them. Han explains, “The app guarantees 100% privacy, whilst allowing older people to stay safer so they can maintain their independence at home for longer. It also takes some of the worry away from voluntary carers, like my son.”

How Han brought his idea to life

Han spent the bulk of his career working on self-learning systems in a development laboratory at IBM, with many opportunities to work on projects in the USA. He loved his career and describes it as 31 years of “celebration”. The grandfather-of-two was pleased that he was able to use and build on the skills and experience acquired during this time, by creating an app which uses a self-learning system.

Speaking candidly, Han explains that coming up with the idea for the project was one thing, but developing it and getting it right was another – and that process is still ongoing today. He drew help and support from Matthijs, as well as from the Start Up Plus program (recently renamed the Silver Starter program), which is run by Aegon.

Han explains, “I was very lucky to have my son Matthijs help me with the development of the app. We both had a problem – his was that he was concerned about me, and mine was that I wanted to maintain my dignity and independence – so it was great to be able to solve it together with the app. Matthijs wrote the software systems, as well as designing and implementing it, and we distributed it on a small scale.

“Eventually, we reached the stage where the app had been successfully tested in 100 different locations for three months, and I wasn’t really sure how to proceed next. This is when I applied to Start Up Plus – a course that supports older people with creating startups. It was a godsend. It took six weeks and I learnt how to come up with a business model and a mission statement.

“At the end of the course we got to pitch our business plans to a jury, and my idea won – so I was given EUR 10,000 to help me develop it. My wish came true and I was able to purchase a replay program, which means I can now reprocess old data and test changes I make to the app. I’m also spending the money on testing new inventions, which also allows me to open new markets, and some of my prototypes are already working.”

The growing demand for care

After spending a few years trying to find the right concept and a few years developing it, ‘Are you okay today’ is now widely available to iPhone and Android users. However, Han says that although users can register their details in preparation for the launch, the services offered by the app are not yet available to use. This is because he is still testing some important elements that he’s keen to implement before making the app’s services accessible to people worldwide. So far, users who have signed up are spread over four continents, with some carers wishing to monitor elderly relatives from abroad.

The growing demand for elderly care has also become even more apparent to Han since the pandemic began, as he’s received increasing numbers of enquiries from people wanting to know when the monitoring system will be ready to use.

The role of age and experience in Han’s new venture

Since retiring from his role at IBM, Han has kept himself busy and is incredibly proud of his new venture. Not only has it improved his quality of life by adding meaning and value to it, but his age has also given his business a unique selling point. He says, “I’m 83 years old and have created an innovative product, so publicity is easy. Googling Han Van Doorn actually gives you a result!” He also says that it is his age and experience that has allowed him to come up with the design for his project:

“In the past I would have never come up with the right design, because I wouldn’t have understood the gravity of this problem that elderly people and their families face, or that elderly people don’t necessarily want to wear a button under their shirt or have cameras in their house. I demand privacy in my own life, so I wanted to make sure that my app gave that same level of privacy to others.

“Worldwide, there are more than 30 systems with the task of monitoring elderly people who live independently and receive informal care from family, but they do not meet the same privacy requirements that I want to achieve with my work.

“I have also become more thoughtful as I’ve got older. I test ideas every few weeks, and make necessary adjustments, always taking one considered step at a time to get it right. I’ve learnt that it’s important to stay focussed, keep things simple, stay open to suggestions and advice, and to celebrate small successes.”

Currently, developing ‘Are you okay today’ is a full time commitment, and Han is working closely with Matthijs and looking for a long-term business partner. However, he still makes time to look after his health and check in with his family. He says, “I swim, take big walks, ride a bike and do strength training because I want to stay vital. I spend once a week crawling around the floor while looking after two of my grandchildren. And I also read newsletters on voluntary care, ageing, eHealth and home automation for an hour a day.” Up until recently, Han has also maintained a big vegetable garden, until he was forced to move because of the development of a new tramway.

“As an octogenarian, I have learnt that it’s easier to maintain your health and wellbeing if you know why you are getting out of bed every morning”

The Dutchman also feels that the key to vitality as you grow older is to continue to make sure that you have purpose in your life. For Han, there isn’t an ideal time to retire, and he believes that keeping busy is the best remedy for a well functioning immune system.

Taking Japan as an example of the benefits of working into later life, Han says, “In Japan, people often work longer after retirement because old-age benefits are poor. Yet it’s Japan where people are the oldest on average. As an octogenarian, I have learnt that it’s easier to maintain your health and wellbeing if you know why you are getting out of bed every morning. With this in mind, I would invite everyone to ask themselves: When I retire, what do I want to be?”

Can you relate to Han’s story? Or do you have a story of your own that you’d like to share? Join the conversation on the community, or leave us a comment below.
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