Oregon Center for Aging and Technology: Focusing on Real-World Solutions

By Mark Ogilbee posted 08-04-2022 08:15 AM

Dr. Jeffrey Kaye talks with an ORCATECH participant

The Oregon Center for Aging and Technology (ORCATECH), which is part of Oregon Health & Science University, is a research center that brings together diverse stakeholders — patients, clinicians, technologists, data scientists, product innovators — to develop and establish digital technologies that facilitate aging, with a focus on real-world solutions. 

ORCATECH is also a testbed participant with the AgeTech Collaborative™. To learn more about the organization’s mission, we spoke with director Dr. Jeffrey Kaye and team leader Nicole Sharma. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology? 

Jeff: ORCATECH is a research organization within Oregon Health & Science University, and was established in 2004. We work on developing, testing and building evidence for various kinds of digital tools and technologies that can facilitate healthy aging. 

Over the years, we’ve been very focused on the tools and methodologies for assessing people in real time, in the real world. There’s a term, “ecological validity,” which essentially means: Does the information you get about how people are living their lives reflect the real world? Because what you do in a clinic isn’t the real world; nobody sits in a room with a doctor every day, answering questions. 

Our platform is technology-agnostic, meaning we use open, shareable technology, so we’re not dependent on any proprietary systems or digital tools. We’ve been doing this work with this platform with all sorts of organizations, from startups to big pharmaceutical companies. Our goal is to see things move forward effectively, and to understand what really works in the real world. 


Do people come into a clinic, or is this all remote? 

Jeff: Everything is based on remote monitoring as unobtrusively as possible in the home environment. That allows us to look at daily activity throughout the home. When those sensors are tuned in certain ways, we can look at more specific locations or activities like walking or walking speed, or how much time a person spends in and out of their home. We use things like a bed mat to look at sleep and other nighttime activities, an electronic pillbox to measure a person’s ability to take medications regularly, a wireless scale to look at changes in weight and body mass index. 

We have some projects where we look at the home environment — things like temperature, humidity and light noise — and how those things might affect a person's activity. We have companies that have a new device, and we can embed that device in this environment to see how it might benefit certain behavioral or health practices in the real world. 


This all sounds like a very thorough approach. Are you looking at particular health issues, or the entire picture? 

Jeff: The whole system was designed conceptually around the idea of healthcare function. Function encompasses things like mobility: Can you get around your house? And cognitive function, because if you can’t think, you can’t do anything. And social function: Do you have the ability to interact and engage with other people? Then there’s physiologic function, which considers things like blood pressure and sleep patterns.  

If you have a disease state such as heart disease or pulmonary disease, if a treatment is going to help you, it’s going to improve your function. So these technologies we work with are designed to test these domains of function, and in certain studies we look more closely at some functions than others. 


What are some of the challenges you’ve faced at ORCATECH? 

Nicole: We try to have this fairly fleshed out platform, but technology is always changing, right? When we started in 2005, our platform was obviously very different. I was a field tech at the time, and I was installing Gateway desktop computers into homes. And to go fix anything, I had to carry a monitor and a keyboard and a mouse, and oh, my gosh — don't forget your mouse! Because otherwise you can't do anything. A few years later, I could get everything I needed on my phone, but even that was 10 years ago. It changes constantly.  

So we may think, “Hey, at this moment, we have the perfect suite of sensors, and everything's working beautifully.” But we always have to be on our toes, because there will always be new devices that we want to integrate into our platform. It’s a constant evolution. And in research, that's really hard, because we don't necessarily have the resources to pivot as fast as if we were a company. 


What are some challenges facing the startups you work with? 

Jeff: These startups, they're so exciting with terrific ideas. And it's like, “I almost can't think of anything wrong with that idea.” But the reality is that 90% of startups fail, and we want to help these small companies navigate expectations and move their product forward with their limited resources. The real challenge these small companies face is not having the resources they need, because we can’t do the testing for them for free. 

Nicole: But there are small business grants that companies can apply for with us. We’ve done some Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants successfully, and it's great to help test products and move them forward without the company having to put their own money toward that. 

Jeff: These particular small business grants are run through the National Institute of Health. They’re commonly a collaboration between a small business and a university or academic group who provides the research. [You can find out more about SBIR and other grants through the NIH at https://seed/]


Is there anything else you’d like the world to know about ORCATECH? 

Jeff: I’d say ORCATECH is open for business — and by that I mean, we feel like there’s still so much to do in this area. There's so much spin and buzz around technology in general, and we want to be honest brokers and build evidence for what's real, what's working, what's helpful. We want to be a place that collaborates with others around the world, literally, to do that kind of work.