Suddenly, the Tech World Loves People Over 50
In today’s gold rush for the silver market, startups, advisers and older consumers have joined forces to help Americans age better
On a recent rainy Monday night, I stopped by The Hallmark of Battery Park City, an independent living/assisted living facility in downtown New York. But I didn’t have a relative or friend living there.
I went to hear eight eager entrepreneurs pitch their products and services for the 50+ market to roughly 80 investors, marketers and, yes, Hallmark residents. The event was part of the Global Tour run by Aging2.0, a project of innovation consultancies Fordcastle and Innovate 50 aiming to spawn technology and design to improve the lives of older adults.
From Adult Diapers to Brain Fitness
Audience members asked sharp questions and offered encouraging advice to developers of everything from disposable adult diapers with QR codes to detect urinary tract infections (Pixie Scientific’s Pixie Briefs) to health clubs providing workouts for older bodies and minds (Activate Brain & Body Fitness Center).
But from time to time, this was one tough crowd.
“Why are the people in your presentation 85 and 95 and not the 65-year-olds who need the information?” one guest asked Flaviu Simihaian, founder of iMedicare, an iPad program offered at pharmacies that helps people choose Medicare Part D prescription drug plans.
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Some recoiled at presenters’ words that would likely offend their target consumers. (One speaker said his social-publishing platform connects “oldsters” by their interests but isn’t “screaming that you have to wear diapers to be on here.”)
New Era of Age-Related Innovation
Welcome to the long overdue, new era of age-related innovation and entrepreneurship intended to make life better for Americans over 50 (sometimes much over) and their caregivers.
“In the past 24 months, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the number and types of companies focused on the 50-plus marketplace,” says Unity Stoakes, co-founder of StartUp Health, a New York City-based academy for health and wellness entrepreneurship. “In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the 1996 Internet days. We’re at the beginning stages of a big shift.”
You might be amazed to learn what’s going on: startup mentor/funders known as accelerators, incubators and generators targeting health-tech inventors; contests offering five-figure checks to entrepreneurs focused on the 50+ market; Shark Tank-y matchups of product makers and potential customers in AARP’s stadium-sized conference hall and on and on.
Better yet, you might be able to be part of it — whether you have an innovative gizmo for the 50+ demo or are a member of that age group and want to sign up as a product tester.
What's Behind This Boom
Why the seemingly sudden magnetic pull between entrepreneurs and investors to serve America’s aging population through new apps and devices? Forgive the cliché, but it turns out there’s something of a perfect storm.
It starts with the giant, growing number of people 50 and older, of course. There are 101 million Americans in that demo and likely to be 113 million in 2018. “That’s raised consciousness,” says Katy Fike, a San Francisco-based gerontologist and co-founder of Aging2.0.
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As Peter Hubbell, chief executive of the BoomAgers advertising agency wrote on Next Avenue, next year the last of the nearly 80 million boomers will turn 50; in 2018, half of the U.S. adult population will cross the half-century mark and boomers will control 70 percent of all disposable income.
Next, add in growing interest from Silicon Valley engineers, designers and other techies. “Some have become very passionate about health and wellness, sometimes through experiences of their family members,” says Jeffrey Makowka, co-manager of AARP’s Innovation@50+ initiative.
Adds Stephen Johnston, the New York City-based co-founder of Aging2.0: “It’s a little boring figuring out the next app to move mobile advertising inventory. People are hungry for more important projects to work on.”
And venture capitalists and other Silicon Valley investors have come on board, partly because they’re aging too. “Investors who are 45 or 50 whose parents are dealing with health and aging issues are sometimes shocked at the lack of innovation when they go looking for tools,” Fike says.
Smarter, low-cost sensors and the growth of the mobile and tablet markets have also made health-monitoring products (what Makowka calls “the quantified self market”) more lucrative, Stoakes says.
Finally, there’s the Obamacare revolution in insurance coverage and costs. People over 50 will increasingly face financial incentives or penalties pegged to their health and can use products to keep their out-of-pocket medical costs down.
All told, “there is an opportunity to generate revenue in excess of $20 billion over the next five years across nine areas of health innovation for the 50+ audience,” according to an estimate by digital health care consultancy Parks Associates in the May 2013 AARP report, Health Innovation Frontiers.
Prize Money and Hackathons
Contests and hackathons are adding fun and pizzazz to turn age-based ideas into reality.
For instance, the AgePower Tech Search will choose up to four companies (high- and low-tech) aiming to positively impact America’s aging population and give them free mentoring as well as six months of product testing by residents and employees of Ecumen senior housing facilities.
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The competition is a joint effort of Ecumen and MOJO Minnesota, an innovation cooperative and advocate. (Next Avenue President and Chief Operating Officer Judy Diaz is on the AgePower board.) The entry deadline is Oct. 31, 2013; apply at AgePower.org.
“We didn’t just want to cut a check for 20 or 30 grand and send entrepreneurs on their way, like other incubators and accelerators do," says Ernest Grumbles, a co-founder of MOJO Minnesota. "We wanted to do something more valuable and give the access to customers to find out what people like or don’t like about their products."
“Our goal is to help products become commercially viable and make people’s lives better,” says Eric Schubert, Ecumen’s vice president of communications and public affairs.
On Sept. 24, Aging2.0 and the Stanford Center on Longevity will kick off their Design Challenge, awarding $30,000 in prizes to college students around the world who dream up winning products and services to maximize independence for people with cognitive impairment. The entry deadline is Dec. 2.
LeadingAge, a consortium of groups providing housing or care for the aging, will hold its first annual HackFest in Dallas Oct. 25-27. Participants will have one day to design and build tech-driven tools to improve the lives of older adults and their families and compete for $8,000 in prizes.
The Louisville Innovation Summit, is inviting entrepreneurs with products, services or technology benefiting the 50+ market to apply to enter its LIS Innovation Competition Nov. 12 and 13 and compete for a $20,000 grand prize. The entry deadline is Sept. 30.
Aging2.0 will soon also flip the switch for its GENerator, billed as the world’s first generator for startups focused on the 50+ demographic.
It’ll be a six-month program in the San Francisco area connecting entrepreneurs with mentors, customers and capital to help them scale their businesses. The first GENerator class is full, but a second one is expected to begin next summer; look for application information on the Aging2.0 site.
AARP has joined forces with StartUp Health, to create an online and in-person curriculum for digital health entrepreneurs focused on the 50+ market. It’s expected to open in early 2014.
How to Become a Product Tester
If you’re a midlifer who’d like to test not-ready-for-prime-time products to help make them better, I have a couple of suggestions:
Sign up to join the Aging2.0 Research Panel of product testers over 50.
Or go to the AARP Life@50+ National Event and Expo in Atlanta Oct. 3-5, where attendees can watch demos and provide feedback.
At last year’s event, Makowka recalls, a female AARP member saw a presentation for the QMedic fall detection and emergency response wristband/pendant and told the presenter, “If you want women to wear it, you’ll have to glam it up.”
QMedic’s team of MIT engineers told Makowka that “we were thinking all about the technology and not so much about the design.” They’ve since gone back to the drawing board.