Deal Flow

Aging 2.0 returns to Providence

Startup firm pitching smart textiles for the elderly with neurological conditions wins the judged competition

Photo courtesy of Doctor's Choice

Dr. Johnny Luo, the CEO of Doctor's Choice, introduces the second annual Aging 2.0 pitch event in Providence on April 5.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/17/17
The second annual local pitch events for startups sponsored by Aging 2.0 came to Providence, and a new crop of startup firms and entrepreneurs in the aging market were able to showcase their products.
How can the emerging innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island embrace the aging marketplace on a community scale? Would an integrated community housing project that provided the amenities for aging in place make a good investment on the former Route 195 land? Is there a different kind of business model that needs to be developed that recognizes the power of consumers over health systems in decision-making?
Much of the discussion around spurring economic development in Rhode Island has been focused creating jobs for 20-somethings. Very little has been invested in leveraging the economic potential of folks between the ages of 55 and 75. The reality is that many employees were forced out of their jobs because of rising health care costs once they hit the magic age of 45 or 50. There is tremendous wealth, expertise and entrepreneurial know-how to be found within the Baby Boomer generation.

PROVIDENCE – The full house that attended the second annual local startup pitch event for Aging 2.0 at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse on April 5 did not need much convincing about the entrepreneurial opportunities that exist to create new products for the aging-focused market.

Still, Dr. Johnny Luo, the CEO of Doctor’s Choice, the host for the event, provided a brief but enthusiastic framework for the pitch event.

“Because 10,000 people are turning 65 every single day in the U.S., and because Baby Boomers control about 70 percent of the nation’s wealth,” Luo said. And, he continued, “Because 60 is the new 40.”

Six startups made pitches, both for six-member judges’ panel, and for the audience in attendance.

The startups included:

Every Bill, which helps companies accept and manage payments, with the belief that patients should be able to see, manage and pay all of their medical bills in one place.

Portela Soni Medical, a medical device company focused on infection reduction, which has developed a patent-pending urinary catheter that has been redesigned to reduce the growth of biofilm, decreasing a patient’s risk of complications.

CareConnect, a cross platform that simplifies communication between elderly caregivers and family members.

Elderly Parent Resources, which seeks to provide the best resources to support caregivers and elders, to provide them with answers to difficult questions that they may have difficulty researching on their own.

The URI Wearable Biosensing Lab pitched its woven Internet of Things – smart textiles for elderly patients with neurological conditions, offering telemedicine solutions to intervene with patients remotely, enabling a data stream to produce a precise, temporal patient’s condition.

FallCall Solutions has created a simplified telemonitoring solution for elders, caregivers and care providers, built for the Apple ecosystem, with the first “smart” fall detector built exclusively for the Apple Watch.

The judges included: Mark Huang, economic development director, Providence; Charlie Hewitt, health care IT consultant; Joan Kwiatkowski, CEO of CareLink and PACE Rhode Island; Dan Xavier, director of specialty products at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island; Dave Paller, director of finance at University Orthopedics, and Dr. Chis Ottiono, associate medical director at Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island.

The corporate sponsors of the Aging 2.0 local pitch event in Providence included: Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, PACE Rhode Island, University Orthopedics, MOO, Slater Technology Fund, the City of Providence, Optimity, the Social Enterprise Greenhouse and Doctor’s Choice.

And the winners are
It was a close competition, but the judges chose URI’s Wearable Biosensing Lab as winner of the startup pitch event. The audience, in turn, which voted online during the presentations, chose Portela Soni Medical as the winner.

As if right on cue, on April 12, a week after the pitch event, Kunal Mankodiya, the director of the Wearable Biosensing Lat at URI, won a $525,000 grant over five years from the National Science Foundation to continue the research into creating smart clothing – wearable items such as gloves and socks – to help people monitor their health from home.

The NSF competitive grant is awarded annually to junior faculty who demonstrate groundbreaking research and innovation.

Push, pull of consumers in the marketplace
ConvergenceRI spoke with Dr. Johnny Luo after the event to talk about the larger context for developing new startups in the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem that address the needs of an aging population. Here is the interview:

ConvergenceRI: How would you describe the push and pull of consumer products in the aging market?
LUO:
Right now, there is a tension between quality of life vs. quantity of life. In the past, there was a more authoritarian view of health care. Now, there is a need to attract people to the products, going from a push to a pull.

ConvergenceRI: A lot of the emphasis in the startups making pitches this year seemed to be on communications – communications between caregivers and family members, reading bills, accessing resources, a fall detector built into an Apple Watch, and telemedicine through smart textile technologies? Is that accurate?
LUO
: We are moving into an era with a greater emphasis on data tracking, and with the growth of wearables, individuals tracking their data.

It requires customers, out of their own free will, to adopt the product.

Under the older method, it was the doctors who said: you have to do this, and the patient did it.

We have moved into a consumer-driven, lifestyle-driven market for medicine.

There is a new generation of retirees and near retirees. They want to be convinced that [the choices they are making] are the right decisions.

There is also the wellness component, about people wanting to live in a safe environment, maintain their independence and lead an active life.

In the last five years, it has become much more apparent that while there is a huge demand [for new aging products], you need to have buy-in on the consumer level.

ConvergenceRI: Has the growth of wearables in the market changed the way that health IT is being rewired at the industry level?
LUO:
The big electronic health records companies, they are still trying to figure it out. It is on their radar.

What is important, particularly for people who are chronically ill, is to be able to [access and adopt] advances in telemedicine.

When you look at the adoption curve with new medical products, the wealthy often find it helpful and are willing to pay for it with cash.

The question is: how will new products become more integrated into the mainstream.

It’s a similar thing with patient monitoring: is it going to be useful? Yes. But, will consumers adopt it, or will it be left in the backroom?

ConvergenceRI: Does the Baby Boomer generation represent a fundamental change in the way that they are responding to health care as they age, with more of a sense of rebellion rather than, say, passive acceptance?
LUO:
I think that may be accurate. Look at the way that AARP is trying to reinvent themselves.

It’s getting to that tipping point, where the generation that came before the Baby Boomers is really aging out. The demand for products has fundamentally changed.

In my four years at Doctor’s Choice, I have never heard: “I can’t wait to go into a nursing home.” Everyone dreads it.

Long-term care insurance is no longer really affordable; it’s about five figures a month.

In terms of lifestyle, people want to live a low-cost, high quality of life.

Many are exiting the country; I’ve heard: “I’m moving to Costa Rica,”

Instead of going into a nursing home, these folks say: “I can hire help to come in [at a much lower cost].”

ConvergenceRI: Is there a need to think within a broader context, not just about devices or products, but how to build, create and maintain sustainable communities that cater to the needs of aging residents?
LUO:
That’s a good question. In the villages and communities of yesteryear, everyone lived close by, the rest of the family lived down the street, you can walk to the market; someone is always there to take care of family members.

We’ve lost a lot of that, with families moving around, with families being split, and the need to rely on third-part services.

Rhode Island would be a great place to pilot something like a 55-plus community, given our demographics and our great quality of life, and the resources and amenities you need to make that community viable.

The pieces are there, but it’s a huge infrastructure project. I haven’t seen it boiled down to the minimal viable product yet.

Something big like that has to be done by developing consensus, which is good, because you don’t want to step on toes.

ConvergenceRI: What have you learned from being the host two years in a row of the Aging 2.0 pitch event in Providence?
LUO:
I have been surprised, despite the fact that the community is really small, how many companies come out of the woodwork, and they get plugged in.

I am grateful that we were able to put this effort together in a short amount of time. It’s been a very positive experience.

We are considering holding two or three more events this year, including some speed-dating in matching companies with some investors, and some fireside chats.

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