Part of the Aging and Innovation Special Report
The market to provide services for mature Americans is, yes, maturing.
Indications from the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, an annual conference held in the San Francisco Bay Area, are that companies large and small are looking to invest in “the longevity marketplace.” Startups are showing traction, venture capitalists are investing and new products keep landing on shelves — whether aimed at health, improving conditions in assisted living facilities or helping people live independent lives.
The reference to Silicon Valley in the conference’s title is no coincidence — many of the ventures have technology at their core.
“We’re seeing an increased willingness of care providers to engage in technology in serving patients,” said Adam Seabrook, a principal with the B Capital Group, the venture capital firm formed in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group.
Startups Aim to Transform Aging
The conference brought together startups, investors, big companies like Pfizer and Hasbro and growing tech firms like GreatCall and Lyft, all with a common interest in helping technology transform the lives of the aging population.
Conference organizers said the number and quality of startups has grown dramatically over the years, as big money is recognizing the size and purchasing power of the older demographic.
“The longevity marketplace — entrepreneurs, investors, corporations — is now in the third inning,” said Mary Furlong, the executive producer of the conference (and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging), who has been touting the benefits of marketing to boomers for decades. “We now have companies that can pitch for growth-stage capital and there’s a global business ecosystem. We’re more sophisticated about what works and doesn’t work.”
The conference, in its 14th year, sold out for the first time, drawing more than 300 attendees. “The number of business plans submitted was way up and the quality of the plans was much better as well,” said Lori Bitter, an author, consultant and managing producer of the event.
Real Life Inspires Longevity Marketplace Ideas
Most commonly, entrepreneurs have jumped in when, in dealing with their own aging parents’ needs, they have seen a market opportunity. “Just about every founder has that story,” Bitter said.
Jay Newton-Small, a writer for Time magazine, told how she was confronted with an intimidating 20-page questionnaire when she placed her father in an Alzheimer’s care facility. Instead, Newton-Small wrote a narrative detailing her father’s life in the foreign service. As his story came alive, the caregivers connected with him and Newton-Small had the idea for her company, Memory Well, which partners with care facilities and produces similar stories.
Steve Kaufman started Quikiks, a shoe company, to help his son, who had scoliosis and needed slip-on shoes. In devising a hinged shoe that is easy to slip on and off without using one’s hands, Kaufman discovered a potentially large market of 50 million people in the U.S. alone with physical and cognitive challenges who could use a shoe like that.
“I didn’t want to be a footwear manufacturer,” Kaufman said. Instead, he sought to license his technology. “But the big companies told me to prove the market and come back when I sold 50,000 shoes,” he said.
Kaufman’s presentation came in one of the day’s Shark Tank-style panels, with entrepreneurs pitching their proposals to venture capitalists. One of the investors hit one of the day’s themes — that older adults no longer want products that look “old,” but instead want to be just as stylish as every other shopper. “You need a shoe design person from Milan,” the investor told him. “You don’t want to be the older person’s shoe company.”
“When I get funding,” Kaufman said, “I’ve got Milan ready to go.”
Technological Advancement Is the Key
As entrepreneurs like Kaufman work to solve real problems, many of them are turning to tech. Technology has famously lowered the barrier to entry for people to launch startups, causing disruption in many industries.
Technology has also created new expectations, according to Seabrook, the venture capitalist. “Doctors are being asked to provide more care for more patients at a higher quality and at lower costs,” Seabrook said. “Primary care doctors can’t recruit their way out of this problem. They need to embrace technology.”
And if anyone doubts the purchasing power of the longevity economy, Jeff Makowka, director of market innovation for AARP, cited results of that organization’s landmark 2014 study, revealing that 35 percent of the U.S. population is age 50 or older and accounts for $7.6 trillion in annual economic activity. If this demographic was its own country, it would be the third largest economy in the world, behind only the U.S. and China.
Serving that market is good business and has the bonus of helping people.
“There is an amazing opportunity right now to do good and do well,” Makowka said.
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