Ben Davies and Lizzie Ostrom, co-founders of Ode, a device that triggers appetite stimulation among those with dementia, tell Janice Morton about its journey to market – and beyond
Dementia poses one of the greatest challenges facing our ageing society and health services. Currently, 46.8 million people worldwide have the condition, and the estimated cost of treating and caring for them is around £400 billion – 1 per cent of global GDP.
While we are all too aware of the cognitive impairment dementia causes, malnutrition is also a widespread symptom. Depression, forgetfulness and disconnection from food can mean patients lose weight and can suffer from associate problems such as dehydration, delirium and muscle wastage. Malnutrition costs the NHS around £13 billion a year, with 37 per cent of residents in UK care homes said to be malnourished.
With this issue in mind, Ode, a device that releases food fragrances to achieve appetite stimulation, was developed by Rodd Design and Lizzie Ostrom of the Olfactory Experience as part of the Department of Health/Design Council’s Living Well With Dementia challenge. Launched in 2011, the challenge encourages designers to develop innovative solutions to improve the lives of those with the brain disorder.
‘For the challenge, the Design Council paired us with Lizzie, who had already undertaken work on sensory triggers for behaviour among kids with learning difficulties,’ explains Ben Davies, Managing Director of Rodd, an industrial design agency working with global multinationals and UK startups. ‘I’d had some thoughts on using scent as a prompt and memory aid,’ explains Ostrom, a fragrance specialist who has worked with personal care, and food and drinks companies. ‘But when we saw that malnutrition was of particular concern, we decided to focus on scent and appetite promotion.
‘Smell is the only sense directly connected to the brain’s limbic system and amygdala, the area associated with emotional response and memory,’ she explains. ‘That’s why aromas can invoke certain moods or behavioural responses. Strong food scents can help prepare people for eating by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and sending signals to the salivary glands and stomach to secrete gastric juices that create a feeling of hunger.’
‘We had a 20-week R&D timeframe to develop a functioning prototype under the challenge,’ Davies explains, ‘to discover what fragrances would stimulate appetite, how to create authentic versions of these, and to come up with the design.’
The team set up a number of fact-finding workshops in care homes. ‘We worked with Anchor Care Homes, with the support of dementia nutrition specialist Gwen Coleman, to establish which fragrances would stimulate appetite but we were also working towards encouraging a balanced diet,’ Davies adds.
In response to the feedback, the team then worked with UK-based fragrance house Seven Scent to try to capture the aromas of appetising foodstuffs. ‘It was quite a specialist task; most gourmet scents are developed for personal care products and therefore need to be more “perfumey” with just a suggestion of being edible,’ explains Ostrom. ‘For Ode, we had to develop fragrances that smell authentically foodie.’ Six scents were developed for the launch – fresh orange juice, cherry Bakewell tart, homemade curry, pink grapefruit, beef casserole and Black Forest gateau.
Next was the design. ‘A lot of assisted living products are ugly. We wanted to create a functional, appropriate yet elegantly designed device,’ Davies says. ‘Our early protoypes were quite simplistic, but we went on to fine-tune the design, adding a heating element, fans to propel the fragrance and a means to chill the wicks to shut off the scent.’
The resulting discreet plug-in device can be set to release three fragrances in short, sharp bursts – so users won’t get inured to the effect – over a two-hour period before mealtimes to help stimulate appetite subliminally. ‘It’s easy to use, scent triggers can be personalised, and it’s less stigmatising than an alarm or constant reminders from carers to “eat up”,’ adds Davies. It has also helped free up carers during meal times and encouraged interaction between them and the patient.
‘After the launch, we secured a small grant to test the device. The findings were extremely encouraging; in an 11-week trial with 50 individuals and families living with dementia, over 50 per cent of participants either stabilised their weight or gained weight (on average, 2kg), after Ode was installed.’
Two years on from the launch, Ode is now selling in the UK, Norway, Netherlands, Australia and Japan. The device has received a lot of interest from the media and the dementia care community, and was voted the most Innovative British Business Idea in 2013 by Creative Business Cup.
But the journey to market doesn’t end there. ‘We are still working on growing our sales volumes and extending our global reach,‘ explains Davies. ‘We are continuing to refine the product design, looking at including aromas from different cultural cuisines, and considering how we can extend Ode’s use to support, for example, relaxation, convalescence and reminiscence therapy.
‘For us, the main challenge wasn’t developing the prototype – even with the short development time – we’ve done that many times before, and we had support from the Design Council’s expert mentors, regular sessions on business planning, branding and marketing,’ explains Davies. ‘It was maintaining momentum when the £70,000 Living Well funding ran out, and getting access to enough people with dementia in order to carry out meaningful research and test the product. As a start-up, navigating procurement and compliance – especially in care homes – and the specifics of particular chains and organisations was also difficult. It took us a while to really understand how customers buy in blends of products and services from various providers, so we could work out how Ode slots into that. But I think we’ve got there now!
‘From our experience, my key piece of advice for other innovators would be: Don’t let technology get in the way – focus on meeting the needs of the users. Tech is transient, care isn’t. Keep care personal.’
Recommendations on how we should use AI, genomics and medtech in the NHS – click here for 98 pages to guide us to the future. ‘The greatest challenge is the culture shift in learning and innovation, with a willingness to embrace technology for system-wide improvement. An ambitious drive “towards the NHS becoming the world’s largest learning organisation”’.
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