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Insights For Start-Ups: Finding Funders and Partners

Sherri Snelling July 9, 2018

A $7.6 trillion market opportunity is a call to jump in with disruptive ideas and place a bet on the most promising innovative solutions. Stria spoke to investors and entrepreneurs for perspective and advice on longevity economy business opportunities. We also developed a Resource Map: Business Innovation in the Longevity Market to provide a snapshot of the funding and support ecosystem for the people and businesses who are seeking to meet the demands of an aging society.

Entrepreneurs see their Holy Grail in creating solutions that support the people 50+ who are redefining “old age” by adding more years to extended wellness, work and economic activity than previous generations. Startups are also innovating for the 40 million+ family caregivers, those Americans who provide the majority of care at home to older loved ones, many in their 80s, 90s and even 100-year-olds.

Following are the insights and lessons learned from the longevity market’s entrepreneurs.

1. Learn From the Aging Pros

Many of the entrepreneurs in the longevity market tend to fall into the Gen X and millennial age demographic. They may have experienced a life event with an older loved one that triggered their innovative idea, or simply saw the future potential in a growing older society and seized the day. However, many entrepreneurs have not yet personally experienced the challenges of being age 50+. This lack of hands-on experience means finding sage advisors and organizations that can provide insights into an aging world.

Organizations such as the National Council on Aging (NCOA), American Society on Aging (ASA), The Gerontological Society of America (GSA) and LeadingAge all have annual conferences. There are also a growing number of regional events such as Aging Into the Future held in Los Angeles or vertical industry conferences such as Argentum for the senior living industry. Attending these events offers valuable learnings and expert connections for startup companies.

In addition, getting stage time in front of potential partners and funders at competitions such as AARP Innovation Challenge pitch events, Boomer Venture Summit Business Competitions or the Eight Global Challenges in Aging events hosted by Aging2.0, can provide the broader awareness but also the education curve, based on the judging panel’s questions, to catapult a start-up into an accelerator or other partnerships.

As startups with seed or angel investments look to attract Series A and B funding from VCs, developing a strong ecosystem that involves various partnerships becomes imperative for next stage growth. This is the stage where pilot studies and demonstration projects working with non-profit organizations, academic researchers and distribution customers can be an effective tool in attracting additional and larger investments and larger distribution pipelines. The evidence-based proof of concept results give confidence to VCs, private equity and corporate VCs who look for growth potential. The pilots and studies can also provide startups with crucial data if an essential pivot in a business model strategy is needed.

2. Know Your Customer

Katy Fike, a founding partner of Generator Ventures and co-founder of Aging2.0, a global innovation network and startup accelerator program encourages entrepreneurs to look for business-to-business (B2B) or even business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C) distribution channels for success.

“The direct to consumer channel is too underdeveloped and it’s hard to find clients or customers in an efficient way,” says Fike.

One of the lucky startups to hit the mother lode, namely AARP with its 39 million members, is Musical Health Technologies (MHT). This digital therapeutics startup and creator of SingFit PRIME combines a proprietary music platform with music therapist designed protocols and training to improve the health pf people with dementia. Music Health Technologies is one of the few companies chosen to collaborate with AARP Innovation Labs after winning several competitions including the AARP Innovation @50 Consumer’s Choice Award voted on by AARP members.

Rachel Francine, CEO of SingFit and MHT, says wanting to provide a solution for care and fill a gap in senior quality of life is not enough. If long-term care (LTC) is a potential client or distribution channel, understanding how LTC businesses operate is critical.

“Startups should realize senior care operates slower than other industries,” says Francine. “Understanding long sales cycles, the high rate of staff turnover and the tech education hurdles are critical to cracking this channel.”

One avenue to education in LTC is Brookdale’s entrepreneur in residence program where start-up executives live in the senior living community it wants to serve. This provides an essential learning curve that many tech innovators need by seeing firsthand how to insert the customer into the product or service development.

3. Find the Right Allies

For entrepreneurs looking to survive and thrive in the longevity market, funding from angels, VCs and ultimately growth-stage investment firms is critical—but survival also requires partnerships that offer distribution, validation and sustainability. Look to community organizations and nonprofits to find the right fit for your business.

There are opportunities with non-profits such as The Thrive Center in Louisville, Kentucky. The center—located in a market that also is headquarters for health care companies such as Humana, Signature Health, Kindred Healthcare and more—is a showcase for guests wanting an immersive experience in aging technology whether it be artificial intelligence (AI), voice assistance or virtual reality (VR).

The Thrive Center CEO Sheri Rose says the center has quickly become a go-to resource and aging ecosystem convergence partner bringing together aging tech startups with academic research partners as well as potential distribution partners.

One startup spotlighted at The Thrive Center is Embodied Labs, a VR education-based training tool for health care professionals and family caregivers alike. Its current customers include Comfort Keepers, a leading in-home care services provider, and Chicago Methodist Senior Services, a regional nonprofit investing in companies focused in aging care. The VR start-up also won several competitions including the AARP Innovation Challenge competition at this year’s Boomer Venture Summit.

“Building relationships with community organizations that are part of larger national groups has been a successful strategy for us,” advises Carrie Shaw, CEO and co-founder of Embodied Labs. “By aggregating several of these relationships, you can make a case for scaling a local model into a national solution.”

4. Get Smart About AARP Partnership

When it comes to scale, the distribution partner every entrepreneur wants is AARP. With its 39 million members, entrepreneurs see an instant escalator to success for driving their business to a large target audience. But according to Andy Miller, senior vice president of Innovation and Product Development who runs AARP Innovation Labs, including The Hatchery, taking it step by step is best.

“Most startups aren’t ready for us—there has to be a true market fit and a grounded understanding of our social mission for older adults,” says Miller.

How do you get AARP’s attention and learn more about their member needs? Smart startups should look to participate in AARP’s Innovation Challenge pitch events, the American Idol-style competitions held around the country typically in partnership with other organizations including Mary Furlong’s Boomer Summits, Northeastern University School of Nursing or the Mass Challenge. Local winners are brought to Washington, D.C. to compete in a final presentation before judges and more importantly, AARP members.

5. Tap Into New Opportunities

When it comes to potential partners for a B2C play, there are new options on the horizon. Startups can be encouraged that Best Buy is betting on its Assured Living concept to help seniors and their families with their need for the safety, security and the desire to connect. The new program bundles an aging in place remote monitoring system purchase with an app for text alerts and its Geek Squad customer service. Available in 21 major metro areas, Assured Living includes Geek Squad installers to make set up in the home easy for seniors and their family and a monthly Geek Squad service fee for troubleshooting tech questions or issues via landline, smartphone or online chat.

Robert Wray, CEO of BlueStar Senior Tech and a retired Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, says his company serves a similar role for today’s entrepreneurs that Sears catalog did in its day. BlueStar Tech is a mirror of an aging society curating products that meet the desires, habits, customs, and mode of living of aging Americans and those with disabilities, including our veteran population. Wray is a go-to source for startups to find distribution through its ecommerce site or to be included in BlueStar’s retail partnerships with large organizations such as Best Buy and USAA.

Speaking on a recent panel about partnerships at the Boomer Venture Summit, Wray advised the audience that personal relationships still matter. It was through a Best Buy acquaintance of someone on his staff that Wray got his meeting with the multinational consumer electronics retailer. Now some of BlueStar Senior Tech products are available at Best Buy.

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Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist and expert on aging and caregiving. She has been a longtime Alzheimer’s awareness advocate and has also created and worked on award-winning social awareness campaigns including the Nintendo-Starlight Foundation Fun Center program at children’s hospitals, the first campus rape education campaign with the National Rape Treatment Center and the “Picture Them Home” campaign with Canon and the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children for which she was awarded the Corporate Partner Award by NCMEC and the U.S. Department of Justice.

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