Graying of America brings opportunities for ‘elder tech’ entrepreneurs

Many entrepreneurs, especially those who are millennials or younger, focus on products or services designed for people like themselves. The list includes software applications of all descriptions, grab-and-go food and drink, wearables, and “athleisure” products, to name a few.

That makes market sense given there are 75 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34, and they aren’t often shy about spending on consumer goods and services.

A much larger market are Americans 50 and older. About 111 million people fall into that graying group, which also happens to hold nearly two-thirds of the nation’s financial assets and which spends an estimated $3.2 trillion annually. That’s a figure greater than the gross national product of France or Brazil.

If seniors command so much financial clout, why aren’t more entrepreneurs looking to create products or services that cater to their changing health needs and lifestyles?

That question flowed through a March 9 Tech Council Innovation Network discussion at the UW–Milwaukee Innovation Campus, where about 70 people heard from an entrepreneur, an investor, and the director of one of the nation’s largest “senior care” innovation centers.

“We should make Milwaukee the nation’s premiere location for senior startups,” said Melinda Caughill, co-founder of i65, a company that has developed Medicare enrollment guidance software for financial planners, health care professionals, and others who must navigate the Medicare signup process.

That cluster may already be emerging, judging by the number of young companies on hand to talk about their ideas for serving the senior market. Those products ranged from devices to counter swallowing problems often found in older people to devices to better connect the elderly to their families and caregivers. Some of the entrepreneurs were seniors themselves, explaining it helps to know what others like them want.

Perhaps more significant is the market “pull” from companies such as Milwaukee-based Direct Supply, the nation’s leading provider of products, services, and technology to the senior-care market. It has launched an Innovation and Technology Center to work closely with startups and academic institutions to identify and adapt emerging technologies in senior care.

“We’re very much committed to attracting and creating innovation in the senior care space, and we think Milwaukee is a great place to do that,” said Tom Paprocki, the managing director for Direct Supply’s Innovation and Technology Center.

Located in a historic, neo-Gothic building across the street from the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the 50,000-square-foot center is home to six startups. It is engaged in 12 university partnerships and is working with 28 startups from around the world. Some 1,400 startups have been vetted in about two years, a sign of growing activity in the senior products and services sector.



Major areas of interest for the Direct Supply center include virtual and augmented reality, telemedicine, remote monitoring, passive fall prevention, social robotics, artificial intelligence, and staff efficiency. Many of those technologies will be applied in health care.

The Direct Supply tech center is not alone nationally in accelerating ideas tied to senior living. Aging 2.0 in San Francisco and Innovate LTC in Louisville, Ky., are among other examples, especially on the consumer products side.

Investors are paying attention, said Katie Schmitz, senior vice president for Ziegler, a leading health care investment bank. Ziegler’s portfolio includes many companies with products or services aimed at seniors. The Ziegler Link-Age Longevity Fund is a $27-million arm that invests in health information technologies and other services tied to “the longevity economy.”

People 50 and older are already the largest single group of Americans, and their needs and habits are redefining everything from health care to consumerism. For entrepreneurs who are looking to market their ideas, it makes sense to pay attention not just to millennials, but also baby boomers and beyond.

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