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Do contests propel innovation in an industry that lacks infrastructure?

Incubators and contests -- do they enable innovation?  Paul Krugman's interesting article about GE’s competition to find a new design raises a question about how to boost innovation and lower its cost. If you read the article, entitled 'Complexity is Free' – you will discover how a simple contest, fielded internationally, generated a design improvement at almost no cost for GE: "The winning prize pool [was] $20,000, spread out across 8 finalists, with awards ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 each." So for $20K, GE got something it wanted, layered that something into a design process that enables continuous revision to designs without new infrastructure investment (the 'free' in the title.) Does anyone else find it interesting that there was no internal engineer who could figure out how to design a lighter-weight bracket component -- and that a contest was required? Or was this a publicity stunt to generate good will for GE? 

In the senior housing tech arena – innovation is wanted – but is the infrastructure ready?  Is the pace of senior housing innovation and adoption of new technology too slow? Why is this? I’ve heard various theories over the years, and this Senior Housing Forum post elaborates on a few: Are the products unsuitable for their market? Is there just too much resistance to change? Are products like sensors too costly for the intended audience? A Citi-sponsored column last week proposed sensors in the home as a way to help aging parents stay there. Sensors in the home have been around for many years. For example, Living Independently Group launched QuietCare in 2002 (now part of Care Innovations) more than a decade ago. GrandCare went to market in 2006, Healthsense in 2007, Independa in 2009, BeClose in 2010. All will shortly be joined by San Francisco-based Lively. The beneficiaries of sensor-based technologies in the home, clearly, are seniors and their families. The market is there -- but it may be that the infrastructure, that is basic expectation (home and home care), home building innovation (houses and senior housing) hasn't kept pace with need -- and thus sensor-based remote monitoring technologies are not yet presumed to be required, not yet basic in terms of infrastructure as are electrical outlets, heat and lighting.

Tech readiness and demographics propel new funds and incubators. Over the past few years, those in and around the boomer/senior market and senior housing industry have become increasingly impatient – perhaps concluding that more innovation is needed. In addition to the long-running Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit at Santa Clara University, a number of new competitions and collaborations have launched to pick up the pace of innovation in the boomer/senior market. A Kentucky organization, Innovate LTC has launched a LINK Tank competition to spawn more ideas that could convert into viable tech for older adults. Ecumen has launched Age Power Tech, hoping to spawn more innovation for senior housing. Link∙Age Ventures is creating a fund to "facilitate innovations that serve its senior marketplace." And AARP has sponsored a variety of initiatives and events to accelerate Innovation@50+.

Tech for seniors has mindshare, but is not yet basic as infrastructure. The Boston Consulting Group published a market sizing today for elder care technologies -- $2.7 billion in 2012, growing to $7.2 billion by 2018.  The report limits the definition to home telehealth and safety, asserting that the availability of wireless networks and smartphones have made remote monitoring of health as well as activity status more feasible and thus more likely.  Read the BCG report (if you can get your hands on it) with caution. Innovation and availability does not necessarily equal adoption. I would argue that until a technology is indispensable for consumers and home care providers (the smartphone may soon be there) and until it is integrated into basic infrastructure (private home building as well as in senior housing), adoption of elder care technology requires thought and effort.  Basic infrastructure for R&D and innovation is what GE had before it ran its contest. Likewise, basic infrastructure in the home must include a wireless network along with standard electrical outlets. The basic home care kit for workers must include smartphones and careful placement of remote sensors for times when a senior is alone. And basic infrastructure for new senior housing development must incorporate wireless networks and ubiquitous remote monitoring, buried in service levels of care.


As an R&D engineer for 30 years, having participated in several of these myopic and indulgent efforts over the years, I can confirm they are for the most part a colossal waste of time. Other than a spiff of attention by local and some times national media, the flash of interest is soon dissipated by the realities of a very difficult market sector. Issues such as patenting, FDA approvals, licensing and other commercial vagaries from idea to merchantable market is a vast and enduring canyon to jump successfully. In most commercial sectors you have a single 'paying decision maker' while in the aging sector your have multiple voices all bantering for their biased priorities before a sale is made. In a multi trillion dollar economy a $3 billion sector with low volume percentile growth (even with a doubling of the aging demographic's not withstanding) is still peanuts as commercial space. Unless a product is mandated by a health professional (other than Viagra) most customers will typically defer a purchase ... as most belief they can cope until some episodic health event forces a revisit the product issue.

The problem seems to lie not so much in innovation as in marketing.

I have long been an advocate for the innovation link between technology and market models. Creation is magical (money distibuted to craft/fix/illuminate a new tool) but sustainability of a creation is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. What about funding a creator and provider to "work out design improvements" that create market revenue sustainability (tool + biz model = sucess). Providers are primarily left on our own to solve the puzzle of tool use sustainability. I think this is where the best return on investment may be. Any angel investors want to consider? :)

One of the agenda items was a 'Pitch for Pilot' -- tech company that wins gets a pilot with one of the participating provider organizations. Lively was the winner.

I imagine that Ecumen or Eskaton was the provider.



Another factor that mey be limiting adaption of new technology is the resistance of many physicians, nurse practitioners, therapists, care managers, etc., to new technology. Once they comprehend the value of new tech products for reducing hospital readmissions and recurring incidents of chronic conditions, they will begin recommending or at least mentioning solutions to families. This population of "geros," however, is currently in the midst of adopting electronic medical records, a huge change with much frustration, anxiety, and resistance. Maybe after EMR's have settled in and become routine, the geros will hop on board. They could make a huge difference.


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