Deal Flow

UNBLURR wins Aging 2.0 pitch session in Providence

Nine local startups put their products and ideas on display, targeting the market for aging seniors

Photo by Richard Asinof

Amily He, the winner for the startup pitch event for Aging 2.0, held in Providence on May 23, for her social app for seniors that uses blurred images, and the promise to make them clear, as as incentive to help seniors become more active in their fitness activities.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/30/16
The global startup pitch session in Providence for Aging 2.0 provided an insightful window into the opportunities for deal flow in the innovation ecosystem focused on improved care for seniors, attracting nine local startups. In contrast, that same evening, the board of CommerceRI awarded more than $7 million, mostly to support two commercial real estate developments. Is there a disconnect here?
Why was there so little news coverage around the global pitch session held in Providence for Aging 2.0, one of only 38 cities worldwide to be chosen? What are the kinds of resources needed to develop a specific Rhode Island investment fund targeted at new startups in this emerging sector? Is there a way to measure the impact of wearable digital devices and social media apps that bypass the health care delivery system and respond directly to patient needs? How would the results of a similar pitch session change if the judges were residents at a nursing facility or an assisted living facility, rather than mostly insurance company executives?
The Aging 2.0 pitch event was perhaps the last roundup for Peter Andruszkiewicz, the outgoing president of Blue Cross & Blue Shield and the chair of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. When Andruszkiewicz arrived in 2011, he told ConvergenceRI: “Like it or hate it, health care reform is designed to change a system that for generations has not served us well.” Andruszkiewicz, who had gotten into the health insurance business back in 1982, continued: “We were saying [back] then, from a quality and cost standpoint, it’s unsustainable. The system has not changed; it’s still unsustainable. Health reform is going to happen, we need health care reform.”
Five years later, in 2016, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act well underway, with the ongoing efforts to change the reimbursement system from fee-for-service to global payments, what does Andruszkiewicz think about health care reform now?

PROVIDENCE – On the same night that CommerceRI announced more than $7 million in investments, mostly in two real estate deals, ConvergenceRI attended the Aging 2.0 startup search event at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

The contrast between the two sessions reveals much about the current disconnect in deal flow in Rhode Island.

The Aging 2.0 gathering was a local pitch event that was part of a global search for the best aging-focused startups, with the winners invited to showcase their products in San Francisco gathering. Providence was one of 38 cities chosen to be part of that search.

The nine local Rhode Island startup companies making pitches included:

Fulcrum, a firm that is developing modular air-filled support technology, to assist wheelchair-bound individuals to minimize atrophy and injury.

Bonapeda, an exclusive distributor of orthotics that reduces pain associated with fat pad atrophy and to improve wound healing in seniors.

HealthID, piloting a wearable device that can deliver important medical information during an emergency to first responders, utilizing a comfortable silicon wristband.

Nack, which seeks to deliver happiness to seniors through simple acts of coffee.

SmartVest, which seeks to integrate wearable technology and fashions to make getting dressed fun and easy for those with arthritis.

BetaXAnalytics, which seeks to improve the quality and reduce the cost of care for the aging population by helping payers and providers better use insight-driven data analytics.

MindImmune, a drug development company that is seeking to develop a platform for therapeutics to treat age-related diseases of the central nervous system, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.

UNBLURR, a social app designed for seniors that seeks to make fitness addicting.

Home HealthSmith, which had developed hardware to keep seniors safe at home, in order to promote more freedom, mobility and confidence.

Judging the future
The judges for the search included: Peter Andruszkiewicz, the outgoing president and CEO for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Peter Marino, the CEO of Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island; Mark Stewart, vice president of Finance at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island; Stephen Johnston, the co-founder of Aging 2.0; Mark Huang, the director of Providence Economic Development; and Katharine Hazard Flynn, the executive director of the Business Engagement Center at the University of Rhode Island.

The coordinator, host and emcee of the event was Dr. John Luo, the founder and president of Doctor’s Choice, to help promote better choices for Medicare Supplemental Plans, Advantage Plans, and Prescription Drug Plans.

[If you’re wondering how Aging 2.0 might have ended up choosing to screen startups in Providence, Peter Andruszkiewicz’s daughter, Grace Andruszkiewicz, is the director of Marketing and Community Engagement at Aging 2.0.]

The judges chose Amily He’s UNBLURR as the unexpected winner of the Providence pitch event. With her app, a blurred photo of a loved one, such as granddaughter, is provided on social media, with the incentive for seniors to exercise and “unblur” the image. If the senior doesn’t exercise, the photo disappears from the screen.

Angelo Pitassi’s HealthID won the online voting at the event.

Brittany Cohen’s SmartVest startup was also awarded money to build a prototype to test her apparel designs, following in the footsteps of Nike’s new self-tying sneakers.

The sponsors of the Aging 2.0 pitch event included: Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, Doctor’s Choice, the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, the law firm Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West, University Orthopedics, Slater Technology Fund, Moo, JH Communications, and Optimity Advisors.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch
Across town, in the story that was covered by the news media, the CommerceRI board authorized some $3 million in tax increment financing for the construction of an extended-stay hotel in downtown Providence, the first time that this new economic development tool has been put to use.

The financing is to be provided by waiving of 6.2 percent of the state’s 13 percent hotel room occupancy tax on the hotel property, according the story by Mary McDonald in the Providence Business News.

The partnership building the extended-stay hotel includes the First Bristol Corporation of Fall River, Mass., and Joseph R. Paolino, Jr, the managing partner of Paolino Properties.

On April 20, Paolino published a guest “Mindsetter” piece in GoLocalProv, entitled, “The Case for Raimondo and Pryor’s Leadership.” In that opinion piece, Paolino wrote: “Stefan Pryor is a smart, honest person and professional. Thankfully, we have someone who is breaking some eggs rather than serving up the same old entrenched policies that seriously harm the ability of our state to move forward on myriad fronts. Who cares about slogans? I care about lower taxes, jobs expansion, job training, and an improved business climate.”

Is it appropriate to ask the question: Did the potential of an award of $3 million in tax increment financing for a project directly involving Paolino somehow influence the Mindsetter piece?

Another award of more than $3.6 million was awarded by the CommerceRI board, as part of the state’s Rebuild Rhode Island incentive program, to help renovate the vacant Pontiac Mills site in Warwick along the Pawtuxet River. The new mixed-use development will include 127 rental apartments and 34,000 square feet of retail space, including a brew pub, according to The Providence Business News story. The project is planned to be completed, in large part, by 2017.

Another impertinent question: Who will be responsible if and when the Pawtuxet River floods again at the catastrophic levels of the 2010 flood? Does CommerceRI have any insurance to protect its investment against flooding?

The old adage is that if your only tool is a hammer, then you will go looking for a nail to bang. It seems that the same adage applies to CommerceRI: the expertise of its top leadership is in commercial real estate development; it is not surprising, then, that the bulk of recent investments being made – some $6.6 million out of slightly more than $7 million – are targeted toward commercial real estate deals.

The Aging 2.0 startup search in Providence revealed the promise of investment in local startup firms focused on one of Rhode Island’s fastest-growing demographics: seniors who are aging.

Editor's note: Scott Young, senior manager of Consumer Initiatives and Strategic Planning at the Rhode Island Quality Institute, said that the origins of the Providence Aging 2.0 startup pitch event were the result of a conversation over beers with Aging 2.0's Stephen Johnston, following Johnston's talk at URI on April 6.

According to Young: "John Luo and I had a few beers with the Stephen Johnston who heads up Aging 2.0 after his presentation he made on technology innovation around aging. Stephen told John that he would be back in the area later in May and John committed to organizing a pitch event here. John ran with it from there, this was all his idea and effort."

Young continued: "It was serendipitous that Peter’s daughter works for Aging 2.0 [perhaps that’s how Stephen ended up presenting at URI, who knows?], and I’m sure it helped convincing Peter to judge the event, but putting on this event was all John. I was there at the gestation of the idea."

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