|CEO and Co-Founder
|Palo Alto, CA
Decades beyond her childhood in Bangalore, India, Kalli Devaraj still bears painful memories of her grandmother’s decline into dementia. “She was no longer the grandma that I knew. The loss of her health and memory was hard to see and there was nothing I could do. It really impacted me growing up,” she says. Little did she know that one day, she would have a solution that would ease the aging process and preserve quality of life for seniors, their families and caregivers.
Devaraj’s FouNDers journey began quite by chance. Between career and considering earning a master’s in business administration, she visited a friend at the University of Notre Dame in 1996. While touring the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus, she was filled with a sense of peace and happiness. Soon after, she applied to and was accepted into the Mendoza College of Business MBA program.
Her favorite course was business ethics with Father Oliver Williams, now director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business. “He taught that business is not just about the bottom line. The responsibilities of running a business go much deeper. “That ideal stuck with me.”
While at Notre Dame, Devaraj and her spouse Sarv Devaraj, now the Fred V. Duda Professor of Business at Mendoza dreamed of starting a business someday. Kalli Devaraj’s expertise is in marketing and analytics, while Sarv Devaraj’s is in business analytics, healthcare management, supply chain management, and business value of technology. In the early 2010s, the couple was brainstorming ideas for a startup when the idea of a health information management company focused on seniors emotional and social wellbeing rose to the top.
“Senior living communities have a lot of pain points. Adult children are geographically dispersed and have difficulty staying connected with their loved one. Seniors can feel lost or deserted. Caregivers realize the importance of social interaction to residents’ wellbeing but managing that objectively was difficult,” Devaraj explains. “We saw an opportunity to focus on the social aspects of senior communities to improve resident and family engagement and overall experience.”
The couple ultimately launched CarexTech in 2013; however, incubation and product development processes started months before that with the help of the Notre Dame Innovation Park, the precursor to the IDEA Center. The staff provided Devaraj a small office with a filing cabinet along with assistance with her business plan, feedback on the company and introductions to others who could help advance the startup. Looking back, Devaraj says Innovation Park “played a really nice part in our startup.”
As part of the de-risking process, Devaraj held small focus groups of families and caregivers to get feedback on their platform and its functionality such as documenting a resident’s participation in community activities or sharing of photos and videos with families featuring mom or dad’s activities.
“I noticed the smiles on people’s faces when speaking of loved ones and I realized that’s what CarexTech is designed to do, bring smiles. This inspired us to name our software platform Smile®,” Devaraj says.
Smile® is a cloud-based software platform with a software as a service model for end-to-end communications management that includes activities documentation and analytics for enhanced family engagement. The cornerstone of Smile is an integrated communication and engagement platform that allows family members of residents in senior living communities to more effectively interact with the staff caring for their loved ones.
The HIPAA-compliant platform features an activity tracker that logs residents’ participation in social activities within the community. This data is captured and aggregated into rich analytics and reports that is then used for a range of things from individual resident care plans to evaluating social programming within single or multiple communities. The data, presented in user friendly dashboards, also helps companies meet state and national compliance requirement. Both caregivers and family members can access the data. (Family member access is permission based.)
It took a year-and-a-half to develop the Smile® platform and another six months to secure their first client. In the meantime, CarexTech was nominated for the 2014 TechPoint Mira Awards recognizing the top tech companies in Indiana. Says Devaraj, “That was a big honor. Knowing we had something people believed in gave us a boost.”
From a commercialization standpoint, the turning point for CarexTech came in 2015 when the company applied for a low-interest loan from the Industrial Revolving Fund (IRF), a City of South Bend program that typically invests in manufacturing companies. Up until this point, the Devarajs had bootstrapped the company themselves. “We were among the first software companies to apply and fortunately they decided to help us. This really helped as it gave us the ability to hire people,” Devaraj says.
The loan also allowed the company to focus on sales and marketing. In 2016, CarexTech was invited to pitch along with three other companies for a contract with Sunrise Senior Living, one of the largest and most reputed senior living management companies in the world with over 300 properties in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Sunrise was founded in 1981 in Oakton, Virginia, with the express intent of proving loving, warm communities that preserved the independence and dignity of seniors.
The competition was grueling, but in the end CarexTech’s Smile® platform proved to be the best solution. Four years later, Sunrise remains a satisfied CarexTech client.
“What set us apart was our analytics. For the first time, leadership could see what was happening across the organization down to individual communities and residents in terms of activities, engagement, and response to company initiatives. They also appreciated the immediacy of our reporting and dashboards,” she says.
One module, the Population Assessment Module that captures data on how new residents are assimilating, was also a differentiator. “With new residents, the first 30 to 45 days in a senior living community are critical to satisfaction and retention. Seniors can feel isolated and lonely while their families can feel disconnected,” explains Devaraj. “With our platform, the caregivers and family build a profile of their loved one in the community that includes details of the person’s life, their hobbies, and what they enjoy doing. A resident’s profile can also include photos and videos that caregivers can share with residents to lift their spirits or start conversations or with family members to show what mom or dad is doing. Unlike a paper file, this is a living, breathing document that is always accessible to the family and caregivers.”
She adds, “It’s also where we collect data on the resident’s activities, how well they are assimilating, and other insights that keep family members informed and provides rich insights caregivers can use to help residents successfully transition into their new community.”
With Sunrise Senior Living on board and serving as key industry validation of the Smile® platform, CarexTech quickly expanded to more senior living communities across the United States. As of July 2021, close to 700 senior living communities and specialized memory care centers are using Smile® to support more vibrant communities, better engage residents and families, and empower their caregivers.
As CarexTech’s success grew, Devaraj was approached by potential suitors seeking to acquire the company. However, Devaraj was too engrossed building a company and making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, so she and her co-founder declined. That changed in 2019 when the company reached a critical juncture of making the decision between running a profitable lifestyle company or partnering and transitioning to an operator with a large footprint in the senior living space.
“It was a difficult decision and extremely hard for me to let go as I considered CarexTech my fourth child behind our two daughters and our dog. Given the stage of the company and our family, we agreed it was time to transition,” she explains.
Devaraj signaled to the market that CarexTech was ready to entertain offers. Several potential companies were interested in partnering with CarexTech and after careful consideration, one was selected and all the pieces for a successful transition fell in place toward the end of 2019.
What brings Devaraj the most satisfaction from her FouNDer’s journey is not the financial gain but rather the social impacts. “What we provided with CarexTech was a window into the lives of family members. Knowing we made a difference in seniors’ lives, that we brought joy to families and lifted the level of care; those are the biggest rewards.”
Now living in Palo Alto, California, where her husband is now director of Notre Dame California, Devaraj is enjoying time with her family and contemplating the future. She plans a return to school to study private equity investing. She may get involved in angel investing. She’s also considering starting a new company. Her reason? “My experience with CarexTech gave me knowledge and confidence. Why not do it again?”
For her message to future Notre Dame FouNDers, Devaraj drew upon the lessons she learned in Father Williams’ class at the Mendoza College of Business. “Run your business ethically and you will always win. As a Notre Dame alumnus, this should be a core part of who you are.”