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Hats off to investors with X-ray vision

Some consultants and investors make me grumpy.  In my line of work I speak with junior members of giant consulting firms and newly minted researchers within the back offices of VCs. When I talk to these young folk, I cringe in the face of ignorance about aging, never mind about the markets they are studying. Recently one of these investors opined this gem: "I like to invest in areas where there is demonstrated demand." Let’s mull that over, I thought. But don’t you own a number of technologies that a few years ago had zero customer demand?” Well, yes, that’s true, he admitted and we silently contemplated tablets and smart phones, portable GPS devices, and iPods, where consumers gravitated toward an invention they never knew they needed. Did anyone actually demand telepresence, location-based restaurant meet-ups, Skype video conferences, smart bandages or interactive TV?  For that matter, in the 1980’s did anyone conceive of an assisted living industry, telehealth nurses, or self-checkout in a store?

The technology industry maxim is 'if we build it, they will come.'  And there are the thoughtful and strategic investors who see a customer where none yet exist. It’s easy to joke about engineering-driven businesses, propeller-head inventors, and products in search of a market. We can all recite a litany of business failures, stores that evaporated, services and products whose websites simply disappeared. The Darwinian world of business mandates that 90% of all startups eventually fail. And although the number one reason startups fail is poor execution, the number two reason is targeting a market that doesn’t exist. Sometimes markets prove not to exist on their own, but the intellectual property can be folded in as a feature within broader solutions – in the aging in place tech industry, I’ve often thought that fall detection may be an example of a feature, not a solution. 

Hats off to the investors who see opportunity in advance of demand. Innovation is nothing without inventors, and inventors cannot succeed without investors. How fortunate we are that investors have faith in inventors who show them a prototype, a mockup of an idea or storyboard for a website. Imagine the imagination to see the possibilities at the first glimpse of WebMD, Amazon, or a peek at Marty Cooper’s clunky portable phone? Ironically, not only are visionary investors required to scale unproven ideas up into sustainable businesses, but investors help propel acquisitions of the small to enable the promising to grow, prosper, and cannibalize the markets around them. Those of you slouching around the nether reaches of the tech industry know who these heroes of optimism are, the angels, friends and family, private wealthy backers, and early stage venture capital firms. Emerging industries to help boomers and seniors, chronic disease sufferers, nursing home residents, home security and home owners, we silently salute you who invest in advance of obvious consumer demand, because without you, consumers would not know of unmet needs, unsolved dilemmas, and silent but enormous opportunity.

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It is interesting to see Qualcomm investing in a lot of the m-healthish companies, at a relatively early stage. I think once there is demonstrated success, plenty more investors will arrive in spades. I'm particularly watching the doggie GPS locator (which IMHO has a real value for wandering folks as well). Dog owners don't expect Medicare reimbursement. :<)

But, on the other hand, many of the early stage AIP tech companies seem to have unrealistic visions of what investors need and want. Perhaps a few viewings of Shark Tank are in order? You have to be able to sell your vision.

I am constantly challenged by investors who say "older adults cannot use this technology." I call them on their ageism all the time. Young VC researchers have little appreciation of the challenges of aging. And more senior VC decision makers, who are generally aging well and have well aging parents often do not see the problem. Steve Jobs could have every medical technology solution in the world. But because he can afford people instead of gadgets it is unlikely he is even thinking about the problem.

When we interact with the payer community, who would benefit greatly from the impact of self-management technologies, we often feel like the Jetson's showing the Flintstone's their flying car. They keep responding "Where are the holes for your feet?" They all too often have almost no vision of a technology supported community-care model.

On the positive side, we are seeing much more interest in mHealth from VCs. And for that we are also greatful.

Anthony Sterns
iRx Reminder LLC

Laurie, I am going to share this post on my social networks! We have experienced both sides of the spectrum so many times.
Of course we have our investors! The ones that believed in us back in 2004 and 2005, back when people didn't even think what we were doing was necessary, much less even possible. Even now, so many people we speak with would like more proof - - proof that technology is really going to be the way things go, they want to see case studies, they want to see ROI, proven results, studies...things that most actual innovators (generally entrepreneurs without an unlimited cash budget) wouldn't be able to easily reproduce. Some of it is just being visionary. One of our favorite quotes: "Once the rules of the game are clear, the windows of opportunity have closed". This is also true of our dealers who signed on seeing this would be the way of the future. There were the ones that wanted to be early adopters, but were not willing to take the risk. Unfortunately, so often there is a risk involved in being innovative, first to market and overall visionary...
Rule of thumb: If someone still isn't sure that a smart phone is a good idea, they may not be a good early adopter target. :)


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