As my grandmother is constantly reminding me, aging is hard and not for the faint of heart.
Yet, today, the tools and applications so many of us use to simplify our lives are typically not designed to assist, engage or entertain seniors. We could chalk this phenomenon up to seniors’ historic reluctance to adopt new technologies, or the perceived challenges in “teaching an old dog new tricks.” But the reality is that more seniors are using the Internet today than ever before and will soon comprise a fifth to a quarter of the total US population.
Two weeks ago, the AARP sent 50 delegates to the international Consumer Electronics Show sporting t-shirts with the hashtag, #disruptaging. Their goal was to test the technologies for usefulness for the elderly and to advocate for more products to help the aging demographic. The delegates may have only made up .03 percent of CES 2015 attendees, but soon—by the year 2030—it is predicted that seniors will account for 19 percent of the US population, a growth of 7 percent in a 20 year timespan. With such an increase expected and still few tools available to the aging and those who care for them, the AARP delegates are onto something—the aging industry is ripe for disruption.
Here in the Triangle, a software startup called Roobrik is focused on that disruption and has found some assistance in navigating its murky waters through “The Academy,” an accelerator program run by Aging 2.0. The global organization based in San Francisco has a mission to “accelerate innovation to improve the lives of older adults around the world.”
To find out more about Roobrik, Aging2.0, The Academy, and the aging sector in general, I chatted with the founders of both companies in early January. I wanted to know how a company enters the industry and why an accelerator is an important step in that. Also, is this an industry other startups should consider?
Nate O’Keefe and Judy Conaway founded Roobrik in November 2013 after they connected over the trials of being care-takers—Conaway is O’Keefe’s aunt. O’Keefe has three children, one of whom was born 14 weeks early at 26 weeks. He said he was, “struck by how hard it was to get informed about high-stakes health and care decisions online.” Similarly, but on the opposite end of the age spectrum, Conaway has cared for her aging mother and in-laws over the last 19 years. And after years with poor access to information to help her make good decisions about their care, she was fed up.
Roobrik is O’Keefe’s second startup. His first, Durham-based mobile app developer Modality, was acquired for $13.8 million in 2010 by Epocrates, a point of care medical applications company. And Conaway brings to the table more than 20 years of experience in manufacturing management at the Massachusetts company Checon Corporation, in addition to 10 years of product development for a variety of early stage information technology companies.
Stephen Johnston says he and his co-founder, Katy Fike founded Aging2.0 in 2011 to, “bridge the gap between the innovators and startups doing incredible things with technology, and the aging and long-term care industry that could really benefit from these latest innovations.” Aging2.0 accomplishes its mission through events that connect innovators and experts (they have hosted 85 over the past two years), their newsletter, and the Academy.
Like O’Keefe and Conaway, Johnston’s interest in the sector stems from a personal experience. He previously worked with a family foundation and was inspired to begin connecting startups and their innovations with the aging sector after witnessing the family’s struggle with dementia and disease. Johnston said he was “deeply impacted” and “saw the need to bring innovation to help patients, families and friends who were affected.”
Aging2.0’s first pass at an accelerator was the Generator. While run by the same team, it differed in that it was not a year-round program, and was not location and stage agnostic like the Academy. Pike and Johnston also co-founded Generator Ventures, an early-stage fund focused on investing in companies devoted to aging and long-term care. According to CrunchBase, the fund has made two investments.
Johnston hopes Aging2.0 can, “create a vibrant ecosystem and the best talent and investors from around the world get actively involved in creating incredible companies that improve the lives of older adults.” In addition he hopes they will encourage established and larger companies to construct and design their products with all ages of users in mind.
The Academy is the first accelerator program for startups dedicated to creating products or innovations for the aging and long-term care market. In its second year and iteration, the year-long program offers selected companies networking opportunities and increased visibility among peers, investors and corporate partners (like long-term care and healthcare giants Brookdale and Medline) through quarterly in-person gatherings and events in San Francisco (Aging2.0’s HQ), coverage in their newsletters, and access to their co-working space.
With footholds in both the Triangle, where Roobrik is headquartered, and outside of Boston where Conaway is based, the partners expect to take advantage of the new San Francisco connection by visiting California every six to eight weeks and attending the quarterly meetings. While Aging 2.0 would not disclose how many applicants it had for this year’s cohort, the founders said they were “blown away by the quality and quantity” of applicants this year and selected 20 for the Academy.
According to Johnston, Roobrik stood out from its peers because the founders (Conaway and O’Keefe) are “terrific” and the judges were “impressed with Roobrik’s easy-to-use yet structured and focused approach for helping caregivers, and the numerous ways this can plug into existing service providers.”
Roobrik applied for the Academy because it offers “great access to dozens of leading providers in long-term care, and gets us in front of individual and group investors who really appreciate the opportunity to leverage technology to improve the aging experience for ourselves and our families.”
Roobrik’s founders believe they have a good shot at raising funds during or after the program. Although the final numbers were not ready for release yet, Johnston confirmed that some of the graduates of the Academy’s predecessor, the Generator, either raised funds while in the program or shortly after graduating.
The Aging Sector
The aging sector is riddled with challenges that might deter many from entering the market. Serving an aging demographic with ever-changing needs is challenging in and of itself. Coupled with bureaucratic and difficult-to-navigate systems such as the healthcare and long-term care systems, there is a huge barrier to entry for startups and innovation. Despite the challenges, both Roobrik and Aging2.0’s founders see opportunity. Indeed, their target audience and users are dramatically increasing and will only continue to grow. Meanwhile, a staggering figure—$300 billion—is spent on long-term care per year, and the market is wide-open for innovation.
O’Keefe says, “Like a lot of health IT companies, we face the same challenges of hitting on the right product models to offer sustained engagement, and then in working with an industry that has more than one fire to put out. Our products are solving the first challenge, and Aging2.0 is solving the second.”
So while everyone is still making predictions for 2015, I would like to throw one in the hat—with local startups like Roobrik taking off and international companies and accelerators like Aging2.0 supporting them, I predict the disruption of the aging sector has just begun and we will see the sector continue to reinvent itself in 2015.