Until recently, Silicon Valley didn’t pay much attention to old people. Entrepreneurs in their twenties and thirties mostly dreamt up solutions for people their own age.
But Stephen Johnston, of the Aging2.0 innovation network, says that’s starting to change. As would-be startup founders seek novel markets, hundreds of “age-tech” startups have emerged in the last year or two. The group’s recent 30-city pitch event (30in30in30) attracted applications from 300 companies. The problems on the mind of these innovators aren’t improving dating or takeout delivery; it’s how to manage daily drug regimens, cope with dementia, and create communities for the over-60 set.
Johnston co-founded Aging2.0 three years ago. It’s since organized 170 meet-up events, opened volunteer chapters in 30 countries and signed up 30 companies for its own accelerator program. In return for 2% to 3% of equity stake, the startups can access mentors, advice, and a panel of older consumers that can provide feedback on ideas and products. Money has started to fly, too. The company Honor, which connects seniors, caregivers and their families, recently raised $20 million, the biggest funding in the emerging category so far.
Johnston sees the age-tech market in seven categories, roughly following Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” At the bottom are fundamental needs of human survival: food, air, water. At the top are more emotional needs, like self-actualization and self-esteem. Below, Johnson picks out a few example companies from each division, many of which are in Aging2.0’s program.
A lot of products aim to help the elderly when they’re most helpless: When they’re in the later stages of dementia, when they’re prone to falling, and when their families are most worried about them being on their own. SingFit “makes it easy for everyone to become a music therapist” (see video). WalkJoy is a wearable sensor that measures a person’s gait and alerts caregivers when someone could be about to fall. Active Protective is a personal airbag that inflates to stop someone breaking their hip. And Vynca records a person’s dying wishes, so families aren’t unsure when the time comes.
In the future, says Johnston, all chronic care—that is, care of a condition that can’t be cured, only controlled—will be remote care. Patients will manage their own symptoms and triggers overseen by doctors who’ll check in now and again. He points for example to Sword Health, a haptic device for monitoring post-stroke rehabilitations. There are virtual reality assistants like Sense.ly that can recognize speech and offer “empathetic, supportive” feedback. And full-blown robots likeJibo, a companion (potentially) for elderly people who get lonely. Some VR assistants even attempt to assess whether patients is telling the truth, like when they’re asked if they’ve taken their pills or not.
The third category is housing. Johnston sees a big opportunity to improve the quality of assisted living, making it more efficient and comfortable, and more like a hotel. (Aging2.0 is teamed up with Generation Capital, which owns several long-term care companies). Then there are other ideas, like Miami-based Room2Care, an Airbnb-type marketplace that lets people rent out spare rooms to seniors needing care. See its video here:
Remaining mobile is the one most important needs for seniors, says Johnston. Startups in this category include LiftHero, an Uber-like service for elderly people and SPAN, a handy, retractable tripod that lets seniors get up independently when they’ve fallen down.
As people live longer, and traditional retirement becomes more difficult to sustain, seniors will need alternative jobs and income. Johnston says Airbnb and Uber offer useful money to people who tend to have assets but don’t actually want to work-work. Meanwhile, for late-life, there’s True Link, a debit card for seniors share with their families (with strong anti-fraud protections built in).
Social exclusion has been strongly linked with higher rates of disease among seniors. Some researchers compare the risk factors of loneliness to smoking a lot. Johnston says video chat can potentially help, as in this Barcelona experiment. Then there’s smaller-scale ideas like Good Gym in the U.K.—a running club that helps out the elderly, mid-circuit, as it were.
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