Mercury Home: UC San Diego grads’ AI device aims to give caregivers ‘peace of mind’
After watching loved ones struggle to care for elderly community members, a few recent college graduates have developed a product they say will facilitate better caregiving.
La Jolla residents and UC San Diego grads Ji Lee (class of 2020) and Ricky Rueda (2019) co-founded Mercury Health in 2019 along with Brandon Peck, who attended high school in Virginia with Lee.
Their device, called Mercury Home, is a version of an earlier product Lee and Peck started working on in high school.
Lee said the palm-size Mercury Home “sits on the wall and it basically detects … emergencies,” such as “getting out of bed, wandering. … We mainly work with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.”
Peck, a 2019 graduate of the University of Virginia, said the device works by processing data from sensors, run through artificial intelligence algorithms.
“We’re super secure with data,” he said. “We don’t really store anything other than things like the time that specific detection occurred.
“It’s the equivalent of someone watching, but it’s fully anonymized and private.”
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Mercury Home is “a tool for caregivers,” Lee said. Messages are sent via mobile alerts or emergency calls to a caregiver’s phone, enabling the caregiver “to never really miss an emergency moment.”
The point is to eliminate devices that users must remember to wear or have to press a button to activate, Lee said.
Peck said Mercury Home can send messages to several people under one subscription and is available to family members and paid caregivers.
Sandra Sanders, an informal caregiver for her father in Encinitas, has been using Mercury Home to monitor his nighttime activity for about eight months.
“It offers another level of security and peace of mind,” Sanders said. “It hasn’t happened, but if he gets up in the night and doesn’t make it back to bed, I will get an alert. I can also see each morning how many times he gets up. He has short-term memory loss, so he doesn’t remember.”
Sanders said the Mercury Health team, which includes several interns, is “very responsive and great to work with.”
Lee said Mercury Health is working with independent- and assisted-living facilities to put in Mercury Home, but the bulk of the devices currently are used in home care.
“With our device, caregivers are able to monitor multiple clients within a region at the same time just from their phone, instead of having to be there, listening or just peeking through a door,” Lee said.
Mercury Home is available through a $35 monthly subscription and is free for a 30-day trial, Lee said. By comparison, he said, nighttime caregiving can cost up to $6,000 a month.
The device currently is available only in the San Diego area, as it must be installed by a Mercury Health employee, Peck said.
“Because of the way AI works,” he said, “we don’t [yet] have enough data from enough scenarios. We have to make sure that it’s in the right location and then collect some data anonymously from that room, train our model with it. The installation helps us take care of all those scenarios.”
Peck said he hopes to expand the device’s availability as its popularity grows.
The impetus for the device and its 2015 prototype, named Project Mercury, arose from Lee and Peck being “really close to our grandparents,” Lee said. “We watched our parents struggle taking care of them, whether it was being there or having to take care of kids and parents at the same time.”
When Lee was in high school, he said, an elderly neighbor disappeared for three days. “It turned out he had driven himself to a hospital because he felt a seizure coming on. … That’s totally scary. He lives alone with his dog and if anything were to happen to him, nobody would ever know.”
Lee said he and Peck then decided to “build something that’s just completely non-wearable, passive, doesn’t intrude on anything that you’re doing and just makes sure that if anything bad happens, we’ll know.”
Project Mercury went on to earn them first place in the world citizenship category in Microsoft’s U.S. Imagine Cup in 2015, Peck said.
Peck said he and Lee went back to the device a few years ago, having “learned some more things technically.”
By that time, Rueda, who was a couple of years into his biomedical engineering studies at UCSD, had joined in to help brainstorm and refine the product.
“I saw the value in having a device that would let people … have peace of mind,” said Rueda, who was an informal caregiver for his father’s elderly friend in high school. “He was in a wheelchair and his kids were too old and too busy to take care of him. I would drive him around everywhere,” Rueda said.
Rueda and Lee, with Peck in Virginia, honed the newly named Mercury Home device in UCSD’s The Basement, a campus space designed to accelerate entrepreneurship. They incorporated Lee’s studies in nanoengineering and Peck’s education in computer science and machine learning.
Omar Kaprielian of La Jolla came on board later, using his 2019 UCSD degree in international business to further the start-up’s reach.
“We’re not trying to make a bunch of money right now,” Lee said. “We’re trying to just get the word out there that a device like this exists. The more people that use this device, the better it gets and the more it learns and the more accurate it becomes.”
To learn more, visit mercuryhealth.us. ◆