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Silicon Valley Goes Gray: Inside The Booming Age Tech Industry

From products that help manage end-of-life care to those that boost the social life of seniors, tech for the elderly and their caregivers could be the next big market.

Silicon Valley Goes Gray: Inside The Booming Age Tech Industry
[Top Photo: Yuji Sakai/Getty Images]

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.

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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.

End of life

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.

Chronic care

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 like Jibo, 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.

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Accommodation

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:

Mobility

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.

Financial security

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 engagement

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.

Self-fulfillment

Finally on Maslow’s list, there’s self-actualization–which seems like a tough thing for a piece of technology to ever achieve. Johnston includes in this category organizations like Music and Memory, in New York, which helps Alzheimer’s patients, and various to-come ideas including virtual reality and the internet of things. There’s no reason why physically incapable seniors shouldn’t be able to experience a lot more in the future, he says.

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Age-tech for whom?

As Johnston says, some of these ideas raise “deep questions” about how we care for old people–robot care particularly. Are these technologies designed to increase human contact or reduce it, to make care more humane, or just more “efficient” and let humans off the hook for caring for the older generation? The tracking capabilities of wearables and sensors for seniors can seen as both enabling and intrusive. Are they for the seniors, or the people tracking the seniors?

Then there’s the issue that 25-year-olds can find it hard to understand 80-year-olds, and that technology sometimes has preceded its intended audience. “The tendency is to apply some technological solution because it works in some abstract use-case, but often it’s not appreciated by the older adult themselves,” he says.

Aging2.0 now runs consumer panels where entrepreneurs can get feedback on their ideas, as well as an elder mentor program. Johnston hopes the next generation of products will be more in tune with seniors’ real needs, especially the need for self-determination. “I think it’s a solvable problem, but it’s not something you can solve in the lab or without working with older people. We’re seeing more engagement now where we’ll square the circle between the need for autonomy and need for control,” he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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