Home News My dementia patients led me to create an app to protect vulnerable customers

My dementia patients led me to create an app to protect vulnerable customers

by maria

By: Dr. Dexter Penn, Founder and CEO, Kalgera

When I started my career as a doctor and researcher, little did I know it would lead to me becoming an entrepreneur.

As a Physician and Neuroscientist focused on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, I’ve worked everywhere from highly specialised Neurological Clinical Trials to Stroke and Epilepsy. However, it was on an Elderly Care ward of a hospital in South London that I came to understand more deeply the everyday difficulties faced by my patients – and older people in general.

I was shocked at the extent to which vulnerable people were victimised repeatedly by scammers and fraudsters.  These older people, unlike their digital native relatives, were often new to digital banking and were unable to access the right support to stay safe.

The eye-opening moment for me was when one of my older patients was tricked out of all the money they had saved to secure their place in a care home. This gentleman lost everything and spent months in hospital because there was nowhere else safe for him to go. I chatted with him every day after my rounds and one day his only relative came to visit and she burst into tears. I felt woefully inadequate and helpless at that moment because despite the excellent medical care I provided I could not fix his biggest problem. I also felt angry that he was being deprived of his dignity after diligently saving and playing by the rules all his life.

Unfortunately, this scenario repeated itself and despite working full time and studying part-time on a Research Methods Masters at UCL I decided to do something about it. But first, I had to evaluate the situation for myself. So I set about talking to patients and their carers at day centres and support groups then before long the scale of the fraud cases became clear to me. This was a huge problem and what I witnessed first-hand was only the tip of the iceberg. While we are all susceptible to digital scams, it is estimated that around five million older people in the UK are targeted by fraudsters – and sadly, many fall victim to them each year, collectively losing £1.3 billion every year.

Criminals prey on people who are socially isolated, less familiar with technology or just too distracted by life to question them. Loneliness is a major factor because it is easy to be sympathetic to someone if they are the only person you’ve spoken to in weeks. This makes it easier for them to be lured in by very convincing con artists.

The more I read and the more research I did, the more I felt convinced that something had to be done. I thought of my own parents who are in their 70s and 80s and I felt an overwhelming need to find justice and promote greater fairness for vulnerable people.

To help the greatest number of people I realised that I needed to use technology to make it more difficult for criminals to gain access to the financial accounts of those most vulnerable.

And so Kalgera – meaning ‘good old-age’ in Ancient Greek – was born. The concept of the app was simple – we warned relatives and carers of vulnerable people that they were being scammed.

I attended a UCL Innovation & Enterprise Bootcamp for start-ups, which gave me the knowledge and advice to develop the project further. With my concept more refined, I was fortunate enough to win awards granting financial support and free office space at the University’s business incubator for start-ups. This prize enabled me to complete market research and also helped me connect with people to help build Kalgera’s app. I was also chosen to be part of the NHS England Clinical Entrepreneur Programme which boosted my confidence and frankly gave me permission as a doctor to really take Kalgera further.

Kalgera securely connected to the bank accounts of the vulnerable person in a ‘read-only’ fashion to monitor for unusual activity – and notifying them and their nominated carers via text message. Having the option to nominate someone they already knew and trusted was particularly helpful for those more prone to vulnerability, or suffering a degenerative disease.

At this point we realised we could take the concept even further – so we applied for, and were accepted onto, the National Cybersecurity Centre’s Cyber Accelerator programme. Being on the programme gave us space to pivot and we started working with banks and building societies to develop our technology capability so that it would help them identify customers who were more at risk of financial abuse. By making the banks and building societies our customers rather than the customers themselves, we were able to reach more people and make a bigger difference.

The Accelerator allowed me to reimagine the commercial side of things – an aspect I was less familiar with in my career at that point. The support of the experts helped us examine and improve our architecture and the security of our products.

Kalgera’s platform was refined to combine expert clinical knowledge, neuroscience research and artificial intelligence to detect subtle changes in financial behaviour associated with susceptibility to financial abuse. The platform interprets past and present financial behaviour to identify risks and trigger personalised alerts.

Shortly after the Cyber Accelerator programme, we connected with the Financial Conduct Authority, and Kalgera became one of a handful of companies to be granted access to the FCA’s Digital Sandbox pilot. It meant we had secure access to millions of financial records, enabling us to fine-tune our algorithms.

The COVID-19 pandemic dialled up the risk to vulnerable people and reported scams skyrocketed as fraudsters attempted to cash in on the crisis. It made the need to protect the vulnerable from online fraud even more pressing – and fuelled our determination to roll out the platform.

The pandemic also unearthed inequalities that were not previously visible to most. The rapid acceleration of digitalisation spurned by the pandemic has touched so many aspects of life – a trend that is unlikely to reverse, but this brings with it new concerns and lessons to be learned. To help deepen our understanding, we established a stakeholder working group of carers and experts in accessibility, fraud, cyber security and financial regulation to ensure we use the best practices to safeguard those most vulnerable.

We have taken our message all the way to a policy discussion at 10 Downing Street, and to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity. We see Kalgera as something which has the potential to affect real change to the way the elderly and vulnerable can be protected.

In addition to working with the FCA, Kalgera was awarded a £100,000 prize as part of Nesta’s Open Up 2020 Challenge, which aimed to improve financial inclusion. Kalgera has been named by Tech Nation as one of three ‘Top New Financial Inclusion Startups’ and listed by Centrica as one of the ‘Top 20 Global Ageing startups’. Which? also recognised Kalgera’s first product as one of the best apps to manage money and mental health during the pandemic.

Our team is made up of different skillsets and professional experience, but the thing we all share is a dedication to protecting the vulnerable. We all have the experience of someone we know being defrauded. When someone is scammed, everyone around them is affected. Preventing that from happening is what drives all of us. That would be my advice to budding entrepreneurs, if you are passionate about something then you are more likely to succeed.

I am passionate about my work – I continue to practice medicine and actively conduct research studies at the UCL Dementia Research Centre – but I have been able to channel that experience into creating something that addresses a real concern when living with dementia. Kalgera was born out of a need to make the financial system fairer for vulnerable people. My drive is to be part of something that has the potential to not only increase financial inclusion but also to make everyday life safer, easier and fairer for millions of people.

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