Google is mulling a new market for Nest smart home products: seniors

  • Alphabet's Nest is looking at a big, potential market for its technology: Seniors who want to age independently.
  • It has been in talks with senior living homes, sources say.
  • It's CTO Yoky Matsuoka is billed to speak at the largest senior housing conference in the fall.
 Elderly women speak to each other
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Nest, a division of Google that sells home automation products, is exploring new products to help seniors live independently for as long as possible.

Several people familiar tell CNBC that the company has been approaching senior living facilities and experts in the aging space with a pitch about incorporating Nest's devices.

The company has floated a few ideas about how it could tweak its products for older Americans. One idea involves using its motion sensors to help people get to the bathroom in the middle of the night by automatically turning on lights, or notifying those who move around a lot in excessive heat that they might be at risk for dehydration.

Another area of exploration involves predicting potentially life-threatening falls. It's an ambitious long-term play, but companies with sensors in the home could potentially track changes in movement and other telltale signals before a fall.

The ideas are only in the discussion stage, and may not find their way into shipping products.

More than one million Americans live in assisted-living facilities today, a number that is expected to double by 2030 as the Baby Boomer generation ages. This demographic also has money to spend, which is why tech companies are looking at the space. CNBC has previously reported that Amazon is also considering technologies for "aging in place," which gives older Americans an opportunity to remain at home.

Nest products can already be useful in elder care, for instance by letting family members check in on loved ones through its camera products or letting only specific people into the home through its smart locks (like Meals on Wheels providers or caregivers). Nest's talks with aging experts have been ramping up in recent months, say several sources familiar with the conversations.

Grant Wedner is one of the lead people who has been spearheading efforts in this area, two people said. Before joining Google, Wedner was a senior director at design consulting firm IDEO where he led partnerships for its health portfolio and spent time looking at end-of-life experiences. He’s also on the board of several healthcare companies, according to his LinkedIn.

He lists his role at Google, which started in October 2017, simply as “something interesting.”

The upcoming conference schedule of Nest’s chief technology officer, Yoky Matsuoka, also hints at the company’s ambitions: She’s a featured speaker at the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care’s fall conference, talking about how technology can impact the future of aging.

Spokespeople for Nest declined to comment and Wedner couldn't be immediately be reached for comment.

Nest just moved back into Google

Nest, which Google acquired for $3.2 billion in 2014, had been its own company under Google-parent Alphabet, but rolled back into Google in February. The move was meant to bring more cohesion between Nest’s smart home products, like its home security system and smart thermostat, and Google’s artificial intelligence software, including its smart assistant. In July, the division formally moved onto the Google Home team, which creates smart speakers and other living room products, and Nest’s former CEO, Marwan Fawaz, stepped down.

This reorganization could also affect the prioritization of elder-care related features.

Outside Google, several smart camera startups are seeing early successes in the aging space. CNBC spoke to a few that didn't intend to get into aging, but saw opportunities after they started shipping products for other purposes. Aging experts say that's a promising approach, as seniors often don't opt to use products that are specifically targeted to them, with a preference for mainstream consumer products that are easy for them to use.

Lighthouse AI, which makes a camera with 3-dimensional sensors that anyone can control with simple commands, launched as a security product, but the company says many of its customers use it to help loved ones age at home. For example, a user could set up cameras in a relative's home and set an alert for the device if there's no movement for a long stretch of time. The camera's two-way speaker could be used to check on the user's mental status and combat loneliness.

Another smart-camera startup, Cherry, is launching a pilot with home care network Tri-Cura to dispatch caregivers if something seems off, via a 24/7 video feed.

"I see a lot of potential if that kind of device could interact every day, asking the person how they are doing, feeling, what their activity level is, how they are eating, said" Victoria Kulli, a registered nurse who works with seniors in Pittsburgh, and a resident fellow at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. "It's easy to see and identify deterioration quickly."

But many of Kulli's patients are low-income and she warns that these companies will need to take the time to help with setup and installation. And they might run into issues with seniors who lack Internet access, or can't afford smart devices throughout the home.

Overall, though, experts see a lot of opportunity for tech companies in the space.

"We have more and more older adults and proportionally fewer family members to take care of them," said Seth Sternberg, co-founder and CEO of a home care start-up called Honor, and a former Google product manager. "In-home devices like Fitbit or Nest really should come together with in-house services to dramatically reduce the cost of care to the elderly and the family-members who support them."