I am co-founder and Chief Robotics Officer at Akara. Akara is a spin-out from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Our goal is to help hospitals make more efficient use of space and staff through the use of robots and AI. We’ve developed robots that can decontaminate rooms faster than is possible using current methods and using a fraction of the staff effort that is currently needed. Before Akara, I worked as a data science consultant and held engineering roles at an AI start-up and at a digital marketplace.
My typical day can differ drastically depending on which phase of development we are going through. For example, all this week I am on-site at a partner NHS hospital in the UK preparing for a deployment. Here, my day could range from speaking with hospital staff and figuring out the best way it can fit around current workflows, to writing software that allows our robot to autonomously navigate and disinfect target areas of the hospital. When I am working from the Akara office, a lot of my time is spent writing code and managing our software team.
Stevie was a robot we worked on before we set up the company. It was a social robot that we built to act as an aid to care workers in retirement communities where staffing levels are often very low. Stevie could take care of basic tasks while also being a friendly companion to older adults, which would free healthcare workers to spend more time with residents and in areas where they are needed most.
In the Summer of 2019, we deployed the Stevie robot in a retirement community in Washington DC. We learned a lot about the adoption of robotics within the older adult population during this time. While we were initially unsure about how the robot would be received, we found the community to be generally very open to embracing new technology. We were particularly pleased to see that a number of people within the community living with dementia or some form of cognitive decline found interacting with a robot to be a comforting experience. Other residents in the community took part in games (like bingo or quizzes) that Stevie ran, or reading groups, where Stevie would read to residents or ask them questions about themselves and their day. Since they no longer needed to personally manage these activities, staff were able to spend more time delivering individualized support to the residents that needed it most.
I believe that robotics will fundamentally change how we provide healthcare. The World Health Organization estimates that there will be a shortage of 15 million health workers by 2030. It's clear we need ways to enhance this workforce, and harnessing new technologies, including robots, offers a scalable and cost-effective way to do this.
Technology adoption can be especially slow in healthcare, especially in applications that involve multiple stakeholders and have implications for patient safety. To overcome these challenges, we’ve adopted a user-centered approach from the beginning, working closely with clinicians and environmental services staff to ensure that the technology is easy to use and can be integrated easily within daily workflow. Additionally, we’ve worked in collaboration with several universities to validate the efficacy of the technology, which gives us critical data necessary to validate our claims.
Working at a startup can be challenging, and being successful requires resilience and teamwork. I’m thankful to say that these are two characteristics that our founding team have in abundance.
One of the key philosophies we hold at Akara is that achieving our vision will require all hands on deck. We understand that what we are trying to build and implement is difficult and requires everyone to chip in and help. There is no place for egos.
I'm really proud of what we are building, I know that's a cliché but it's true. When I see how beneficial our decontamination robots and technologies are to hospitals, and how they could help make hospitals treat more patients, it makes me very proud.