Signs a Tech Startup Could Be a Good Home Health Partner

When Lively launched in 2013, the aging-in-place technology startup had $7.6 million in funding and had access to resources as one of the first participants in Aging 2.0’s GENerator accelerator.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the company—which offered monitoring solutions through in-home sensors—had hit hard times. With no staff left on the payroll, Lively was acquired for an undisclosed sum earlier this month by GreatCall, a company that offers health and safety services through proprietary senior-friendly mobile devices, as well as Apple and Android platforms.

While there has been much chatter in recent months about the startup boom in tech products for seniors—including innovations meant to enable aging-in-place—the Lively acquisition has turned the conversation to the inevitable busts that will come in this space.

Home Health Care News recently spoke with David Inns, president and CEO of GreatCall, about what separates a successful startup and what senior care providers should look for when they’re thinking about piloting or working with a fledgling tech company. And one of his key messages might not be intuitive to providers: Don’t look for products designed to solve your problems.

HHCN: There’s been a boom in senior care-related tech startups, and now there’s talk about which will survive and which will fold. Is it fair to say that some weeding out will be happening?

Inns: I don’t think that’s different than any high-profile, new, interesting space in technology. It attracts a lot of venture capital, startups, people start moving, and then there’s consolidation in the space.

HHCN: How would you characterize where Lively was at in the lifecycle of a startup?

Inns: Lively was still very early-stage. They had had some good traction getting some pilots going with commercial entities. They had an interesting approach in the marketplace with a lot of awareness, but still was in those early stages. And when I look at the entire space, that is where most of the players remain. And it’s not actually unique to independent aging solutions. It applies to connected health in general as a category.

I see independent aging [startups], they’re nascent and anticipated to grow, but few companies have gained significant traction in the marketplace. No one’s rolled out across a large senior living community or player. No health system is 100% rolled out across its base with connected health technology. There are a lot of piecemeal solutions being put together and pilots happening. It’s an issue with the whole category.

HHCN: And that’s what is needed, scalable solutions?

Inns: What’s really needed by most of the industries being targeted are scaled, reliable solutions. We’re talking about people’s lives at stake, based on the quality and reliability of the service being provided. A Silicon Valley startup that just decides to start serving seniors hasn’t necessarily put thought into the details and the fact that lives are at stake. Fall detection can’t just be some engineers in a back room who played around with an accelerometer and put it in a device and called it fall detection.

HHCN: So what are some things that a senior care provider should be looking for in a startup, if they’re looking to do a pilot or get in on the ground floor of a new technology?

Inns: You have to do a  quality or safety audit. Look at things like redundancy, what their training programs are, if there are certifications involved in the devices they use. Privacy and security of the data is another big issue. I think even a startup, if it’s a reputable startup, should’ve thought through those things.

After that, stability. Looking at the financials of a startup. It’s totally common practice, if you’re going to do a deal with a company that isn’t scaled and profitable, to look at the financials to alleviate concerns that there may be an imminent bankruptcy or acquisition soon after completing the deal. For any startup, the financials aren’t going to look great, but how bad is it? Who are the investors behind them?

HHCN: We’ve heard that people are anxious about startups founded by people without industry knowledge. Is that a fair concern?

Inns: Another key thing is how well they know the senior market. One of the big things we always see is people coming forward with cool technology solving the problems of the senior living facility or home health agency or family caregiver, but any technology that has come from the top-down as opposed from the customer forward is seriously at risk of not having any kind of impact.

If it’s not a solution that has first and foremost considered the needs of the older consumer, so they’ll engage and use these technologies daily and hourly, it will absolutely fail. If it’s a cool product trying to solve the problem of an entity rather than engaging the senior, it has to meet both needs. Far too many technologies I see today are coming backward into the problem.

HHCN: Can you think of an example?

Inns: I remember a product people were really excited about was shoes you would give to your mom that would track gait changes. You would get notifications if her gait was changing. Basically it was a health predictor of falls and strokes and changes in her gait. That was a really cool idea and solves some problems for the health care provider, but try to tell your mom she has to wear the same pair of ugly shoes every day.

HHCN: What has GreatCall done right, that now it is playing the role of growing through acquisitions?

Inns: Because we got into the industry early and managed to scale to significant size, with 1,000 staff members now, and taking all the feedback from customers we talk to and leveraging that into product development, that’s a huge advantage we now have. It’s the advantage of scaled larger player in a space with smaller players. The disadvantage you start to have as you get bigger is speed in innovation. We’ve made that a priority for ourselves to always be coming out with new products and solutions as quickly as new startups.

HHCN: What are the plans for integrating Lively?

Inns: It’s still early, so it is not 100% clear where we’re going to go. What attracted us to Lively was we liked the feel they’ve created around their product set and marketing and PR—this energy around making aging technology more fun and lively, and this buzz of being a Silicon Valley startup, that was leveraged really well in making them an interesting technology that had a really great positioning in the industry.

Some of the tech is complementary to what we’re doing. We don’t have any in-home sensors, which we think are applicable to a lot of our clients, including commercial entities in the senior living space. All ours are personal mobile products, so [Lively] could provide enhanced features.

HHCN: And you’re currently working with commercial clients in senior care?

Inns: I will say that as a company, we have really in this last year expanded our focus on the senior living industry, and with some successful relationships, we’ve been moving our tech into senior living companies. Currently, we’re more geared toward independent living and as we innovate, and with Lively’s product, assisted [living] can become more interesting as well. We’re definitely interested in anyone who wants to talk us.

Written by Tim Mullaney