Four ways that tech innovations for older adults get to market

Reuse, recycle – finding a new purpose?  Ah, the cacophony of self-quantification. As we rage against our inactivity and sloth, fitness gadgets have become the rage. One could have a Body Media arm band (“know your body, change your life”), a Fitbit on a waistband, a NikeFuel (“the ultimate measure of your athletic life”) or a Jawbone UP (“know yourself, live better!”) on a wrist, or a Pebble on a shoe from a corporate wellness program. To date, none of these offerings are applied (by the companies) to the world of seniors for passive activity encouragement or tracking.  Soon all of these, like Fitbit, will have APIs for writing new apps – soon someone will see and seize the opportunity to connect a simple and wearable device to senior market, and perhaps more in the senior market will connect caregiving apps like Philips CarePartners Mobile to information from their in-market devices like Lifeline with AutoAlert.

My grandmother had a problem – should a product be born? I cannot begin to count the entrepreneurs over the past few years who began their product or service story by talking about a relative who experienced a fall, was lost, isolated, seriously ill, or away from family, needed better care, etc. These are emotional and heartfelt stories and it is easy to believe through focus groups, demos, and product/website beta tests that a useful and well-tested vision will succeed in the market. But the clatter and clutter of prior entrants and exits is just as real. Even if the purpose is clear and the heart is in the right place, entrepreneurs must ask and be asked -- is there a tech offering already out in the market (a website, a platform, a device, a service) that could be reused, recycled to apply to this purpose? 

The government will surely want this – grants ‘r’ us?  The NIH grant-for-this and the CMS innovation funding grants for that are sizable efforts on the part of government groups to encourage innovation. They seek to solve difficult problems like managing medications or improving quality of Medicare-funded work.  Similarly, grants for university-based and tech-focused research projects (linked blog post was written in 2008) are also well-established patterns for innovation and ideas.  My rhetorical questions, however, underpin how I see all of this work: at what point, by what deadline, does a product or core technology turn into a self-sustaining commercial business? And by what date, conversely, should the quest be called off?  10 grants or 22?  Is it five years of grad school and grant-funded research or 10?  In the parallel world of venture and angel investment, if a product does not succeed in a reasonable timeframe as defined by investors and the market (seems that it is rarely more than 5 years) its technology assets are sold or combined with another company and it quietly disappears as a standalone entity. That is a market-driven world – the next generation attempt will be better, wiser, and have more staying power. In the world of grants and graduate programs, that may not happen and so older adults may not experience widespread benefits from generation two, three or four of tech enabled services.

Technology searching for an application?  Webcams, sensors, smart phones, GPS tracking, fall detection and so many others are fantastic base technologies that can combine with software to make a senior-friendly and useful service. Recently Samsung launched TecTiles – peel-off stickers whose NFC code can be programmed to launch a task or sequence of tasks – for an example, see FitTap – using an NFC tag by logging a recurring activity, like the start or end of an exercise routine. But can these $14 set of 5 tags be placed on family pictures? Can a tag launch a phone call to a long-distance relative from any Android phone using the TecTile free app? Or beyond -- can a tag be programmed to execute a sequence of steps that make a DVR player, TV, and volume control start up (or shut down) all at once? Innovators can take a version 1 idea and base technology and apply that to multiple problems and programmable interfaces. For example, note Fitbit’s API and voilà -- see FitTap.  So the whole becomes larger than the sum of its seemingly silly parts – it’s not just for checking in on Foursquare. And if not TecTiles – what else can be found at CES in a few weeks that will take a combination of steps (both literally and figuratively) and link them to a sequence of actions that otherwise might have impenetrable user interfaces? Since I cannot attend this year, I look forward to your feedback about what’s best among the emergence of what's next.