Dunedin designer behind app aiding cognitively impaired

Dunedin woman Ange Edwards launched a public version of her mobile app for people with cognitive...
Dunedin woman Ange Edwards launched a public version of her mobile app for people with cognitive impairment at the end of March. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
They say an elephant never forgets.

Neither does Elli Cares, a mobile app being developed in Dunedin that supports independence for people living with cognitive impairment while also providing peace of mind to family members.

Its co-founder is Ange Edwards, originally a Balclutha girl who returned to Otago with her family during the Covid-19 pandemic after 14 years living in London.

She jokes that her involvement with the app was "almost like an early mid-life crisis".

Working on an e-commerce site and about to turn 40, she wondered what her two young children would remember her as doing, if anything happened to her. Rather than "Mum used to work on this website", she wanted her work to be more purposeful.

Ms Edwards comes from a design background, although that came about more by accident than intent, given she had "no idea" what to do when she left school.

Returning from a trip to Sydney and already with a place at UniCol, the 17-year-old discovered a letter in the post saying she had three days to choose her degree at the University of Otago. Her brother leafed through the prospectus and quickly recommended a design degree.

After a few moves, she settled in London where she designed mobile and responsive solutions and led in-house and offshore design teams for large United Kingdom and global companies including Lloyds Banking Group, British Airways and Thompson Reuters, as well as emerging startups.

She also worked in accessibility on digital platforms for public sector organisations in the UK so people with disabilities were able to access digital content.

Ms Edwards, who is married to a New Zealand man originally from New Plymouth, said the plan was always to return home. They originally decided on Cromwell, where her parents had a holiday home and now lived, and they spent two years there before moving to Dunedin a year ago.

The couple had previously compiled a list of their favoured places to live, which included the likes of Waiheke Island, Taupo, and Hawke's Bay, and Dunedin and Cromwell topped that list.

One consideration had been around "logistical things that help make living in a city easier" and the family had no regrets about their shift to Dunedin, she said.

Ms Edwards had been working remotely as a senior product designer for Myer, Australia’s largest department store, while her husband works in analytics for a Los Angeles-based company.

It was while at Myer that she met Elli Cares’ co-founder Paul Nichols, a product manager working in digital.

Melbourne-based Mr Nichols, whose grandmother had dementia, told her about his idea and how he had been to Italy for an incubator but that the idea was not going anywhere.

Ms Edwards was impressed with the idea and the pair started working together. He had since moved away from the business although the pair remained in regular contact.

"Startup life is not for everyone — it’s quite stressful. We were working 40 hours a week on top of our fulltime jobs," she said.

A beta version of the app was launched in August last year and feedback helped to improve the product. The public version was launched at the end of March.

Elli Cares was about supporting independence for people with dementia or cognitive impairment while also providing peace of mind to families through unobtrusive oversight.

Aimed at people with early to mid stages of dementia, it provided the likes of reminders for appointments and tasks and, with geolocation, it had safe zone areas which provided two-way notification if the user moved out of them. That two-way notification system meant family members were aware of what was happening.

Ms Edwards had teamed up with a dementia care consultancy in the United States to allow for 30-minute one-on-one consultations to be booked.

Other features coming up included an Ask Elli Anything, through AI GPT, and a motion feature which — after tracking behaviour over a period — would notify family if the phone was not picked up.

There was a lot of research around how continuing to live independently and autonomously could help stave off the progression of dementia.

In New Zealand, about 70,000 people were diagnosed with dementia and that figure was expected to triple by 2050, mostly due to longer life expectancy, she said.

Ms Edwards had recently been contacted by aged-care providers asking if it was possible to be part of the support system. While hospitals were overburdened, a similar situation was occurring in aged care and it was often difficult to get into.

There were people who should probably be in care but were not as there was not a place for them and it was about managing as best as possible until that could be resolved. Potentially, the app could mean formal caregivers could manage and care for numerous people and their family members, she said.

Elli Cares has attracted three grants; from the Roddenberry Foundation — which was inspired by the life and legacy of Star Trek franchise creator Gene Roddenberry — Callaghan Innovation, and the Selwyn Foundation.

Ms Edwards has also been talking with the heads of Dementia New Zealand and Alzheimers New Zealand and she was regularly in contact with people around the world.

In August, she is flying to Spain to attend Walking the Talk for Dementia, a multi-stakeholder immersive conference exploring dementia through diverse experiences and perspectives.

While she had dabbled in startups previously, Ms Edwards believed there was a point that a startup "clicks — and you’re like, this is the thing", she said.

She was enjoying working out of startup hub Petridish, where it was very easy to "come across the right people" and to make connections.