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The Business of Aging -- Ontario Innovation Summit

The Business of Aging -- or Aging and Implications? Just came back from a stimulating conference in a delightful and sophisticated city -- Toronto. Sponsored by the Government of Ontario and the MaRS Discovery District, this conference was titled 'The Business of Aging'. However, it was less about business, much more about the social 'phenomenon' of aging and its implications for where and how we live. Translating that, however, this was one of those 'what it means' events for those who want to start and expand businesses to serve and target this market. We clearly need more of this type of high-value context. So what were the key takeaways for me? [Note: When links to event materials become available I will add to this post.]

  • Where you sit is what you see -- health, policy, society. Whether the 'tsunami' of global aging is a nightmare or an opportunity depends on the vantage point of the observer. Alex Jadad, Center for Global eHealth Innovation, talked about making a difference at the end of life, a time he described as one of suffering and loneliness, where most people endure a 'bad' death, hospitalized and alone. Ken Greenberg, an international architect and urban planner saw a world in which older people, instead of becoming isolated into age-grouped communities (the classic 55-plus and senior housing world), would again be intermingled into mixed age environments. And is this a time for finding new business models to transform the elder care system, per Business Innovation Factory founder (and Chief Catalyst) Saul Kaplan?
  • Tsunami and dependency ratios -- let's get over it.  Most presenters (including myself) felt compelled to dump gloomy statistics onto note-taking attendees. My consciousness on this, however, is now raised. Demographic predictions about how many older people, how few supporting workers, and the marked absence of enough caregivers in our future are givens. Let's move on. The real insight about such a slow moving wave may be the wonderfully long lead-time we have to do something useful to mitigate impact -- think housing retrofits, supportive technologies, or new community services.
  • Let's introduce a few new ratios. What about a 'transportation ratio'? Let's assume that driving rules become more rigorous over time and that at some point, driving ourselves around may not make any sense. What is the ratio of available and capable drivers (or transportation availability units) in a region to the numbers of individuals who may not be able to drive? How about a 'visitor' ratio? What is the ratio of available visitors (sum of all volunteers?) to seniors living alone? There was discussion/demo of geographic information health-related emergency response technologies -- if you knew the location of all seniors with specific chronic diseases, for example, this is an enabler for locating them in an city-wide emergency, of course. But this is also a registry for contacting them daily to see how they're doing. 
  • New businesses, new technologies.  At the event, Dr. William Reichman (CEO of senior housing organization Baycrest) and Alvero Fernandez (SharpBrains.com) talked about the cognitive fitness movement -- and Dr. Reichman announced that Baycrest would launch a new cognitive fitness company -- Cogniciti.  I was very interested in the SoleSensor, a shoe insert that detects balance changes and can alert in advance of a fall -- apparently to be sold through distributor AJ Hart Group. And finally, yet to enter the market from a lab at the University of Toronto, I saw a ceiling-mountable vision sensor that could a) detect when a person has fallen, and b) had voice-enabled ability to respond to the call for help.  They are seeking an opportunity to pilot this next-gen remote monitoring/PERS capability. 
  • Nurturing innovation versus housing it. Finally, on the public policy side, statements made by various government officials and MaRS executives make it clear: the government of Ontario seems to be working hard to make the region a business-friendly place for entrepreneurs who are starting companies faster than you can say 'venture capital.' Incubators (like MaRS), innovation policy for public-private partnerships, social innovation initiatives, it was quite invigorating. I heard some comparison of the MaRS Discovery District to the Cambridge Innovation Center in the Boston area. Quite a difference it seems to me -- the former is driving innovation forward as well as housing it.  The CIC appears to be a good building with good services near MIT.

I welcome comment with other insights and innovations from the event.

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