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Tech Startups See Gold In Aging Boomers

PBS NewsHour on the push to create health apps for older Americans


(This article, a transcript of a PBS Newshour report, previously appeared on the PBSNewsHour site.)

The race is on to meet the growing needs of the baby boomer generation, the youngest of whom turned 50 last year. Special correspondent Megan Hughes reports on the push to create new health and wellness technology that older Americans will want to use and investors are increasingly eager to back.

Kathleen Hale, CEO, Rebel Desk: We sell both the desk and the treadmill separately. Ours weighs 88 pounds. It’s on wheels and it fits in a standard size cubicle.

Megan Hughes: Rebel Desk CEO Kathleen Hale makes the case for her treadmill desks, which record user activity to the cloud.

(MORE: Suddenly, Tech World Loves People 50+)

Hale: Thirty-five percent of our customers are over the age of 45.

Hughes: This is just one of the pitches being made at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator where start-up entrepreneurs come to share ideas. It looks like a young person’s game.

But two of AARP’s futurists, Jeffrey Makowka and Sanjay Khurana, are on patrol, holding regular office hours to listen to startups pitch how they might help older Americans. In addition to hearing about the Rebel Desks, they also hear from Infield Health co-founder Douglas Naegele. His app gives patients and caregivers pre- and post-surgery instructions on their mobile phones.

Douglas Naegele: It’s personalized to your medical need, so older hip replacement patients would get one set of content and younger hip replacement patients get a separate set of content.

Hughes: Nearby, two physicians explain their concept for a virtual game called Bushytail.

Man: The only two things that truly drive behavioral change are competition and financial motivation.

(MORE: Tech Devices to Help Boomers Age In Place)

Hughes: Users meet their health goals by placing a wager in a pool with other patients. If they meet their goal, they will get their money back plus a share of money lost by underachievers.

Man: You’re betting on getting your colonoscopy at age 50, but at $100, I’m going to get it done this year.

Meagan Riley, 1776: There are a lot of startups that don’t see the opportunity.

Hughes: 1776’s Meagan Riley says the incubator’s partnership with AARP is helping them to cast a wider demographic net.

Riley: So 1776 plays an integral role in actually making those opportunities more apparent. And again if it is a company that might be providing a solution for someone in their 30s, maybe they pivot a little and suddenly there is a much larger opportunity.

Hughes: Just how large? More than 100 million Americans are now over the age of 50. Oxford Economics estimates their consumer spending accounts for $7.1 trillion in economic activity a year.

If that were the gross domestic product for a country, it would be the third largest economy in the world, just after the U.S. and China.

Brad Fain, Georgia Tech HomeLab: There’s a tsunami of older adults coming into the population, and we have to design for this.

Hughes: Research scientist Brad Fain is in charge of product testing for Georgia Tech’s HomeLab, focusing on older Americans.

Fain: They’re more scared of assisted living than they are of death and losing their independence, and so for them it is a life-or-death issue. They truly see the loss of independence as that level of importance. And to the extent that we can support people living in place longer through technology, new technologies, then I think that’s important. And we ought to do that.

Hughes: In a new partnership with AARP, Fain’s latest study tests how wearable fitness devices are working for older customers.

Woman: You have got to really snap it in there.

Hughes: And why look at wearable devices?

Fain: Wearable devices is an emerging area, right? It allows part of the quantified-self movement, where we’re starting to learn a little bit more about our own behavior that we haven’t really seen before.

(MORE: Exciting Ideas From South by Southwest)

One of the things that we have noticed with this kind of research is that older adults, and adults in general, just really don’t know how much activity they have during the day.

Woman: It picked up that I slept six hours and 59 minutes. I was in REM three hours.

Fain: They are not getting their recommended amount of activity during the day. And these devices can help measure that, help motivate that, help change behavior, and that’s even more important as we age.

Hughes: Andrew Baranak, the lead industrial designer at Georgia Tech, gave us a quick tour of the wearable products.

Andrew Baranak, Georgia Tech HomeLab: The Fitbit Charge is one of their newer offerings. It’s a tracker with a watch feature. And we have got the Basis, with is a smartwatch touch screen. It’s a new offering from them.

The Withings Pulse. We have got the Spire. This is an activity tracker from a startup.

Hughes: The researchers follow up on consumers testing products throughout the state, including neighbors Tovah Melaver and Catherine Shiel in Decatur, Georgia.

Catherine Shiel, Georgia Tech Research Participant:: I check how many steps I have walked every day. And I never thought that would be an important part of this.

Hughes: Both of the women say the devices have motivated them to do more. Melaver, an artist, says if her device tells her she’s short of her fitness goal, she will pick up a hula hoop and get her body moving.

Woman: I don’t think of myself as a senior. You know, 50 is the new 40 or 30. I don’t know what it is today. But I feel like I’m active, don’t feel like a senior citizen.

Hughes: Back at the lab, Judi Mucci reports to researchers that she’s had a very different experience.

Judi Mucci: The types of things they have on it for activity are limited.

Hughes: OK, limited in what way?

Woman: Soccer, tennis. They’re just things that I don’t do at this time in my life.

Hughes: After 13 years of health problems, Mucci says she appreciates that these gadgets could help her. But she also has plenty of advice for the industry.

Woman: You have to watch the prices, because we’re on a limited income.

Hughes: Do you feel like companies are listening to the voices of people who…

Woman: They’re starting to.

Jody Holtzman, AARP: The market expects us to put skin in the game if we’re serious about sparking innovation.

Hughes: AARP’s Jody Holtzman says his group is preparing to launch its own investment fund dedicated to the longevity economy. He says the growing aging adults market has lacked the investor frenzy seen in the social media space.

He says that was sparked when Facebook became a publicly traded company, allowing early investors the opportunity to cash out.

Holtzman: What we saw after Facebook exited was, all of a sudden, everybody was building funds focused on social media. And my hope is that when that first big exit happens in our space, those types of internal initiatives will also find their way into the V.C.s, so they start to think about the longevity economy as an investment theme.

Hughes: As for the future of wearable fitness products, Shiel says her cohorts may be seen as late adopters, but that industry should pay attention.

Shiel: You know, the stereotype that old people don’t like the technology, I want to break that right now. I love these technological devices. I know how to use them. I just need to see how they’re going to serve me. And I don’t want them to run me either.

Hughes: If enough older Americans are as tech-savvy as Shiel, companies will have plenty of opportunity to turn their golden years into gold.

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