Innovating for an aging world

Peter KaldesPeter Kaldes

President & CEO American Society On Aging

South by Southwest (SXSW) is one of the big tech conferences in the world. What is your ambition to be here on behalf of the American Society on Aging?

We, the American Society on Aging (ASA), are here in Austin to preach to the unconverted, in other words we think that tech start-ups need to hear from professionals in what we call “the field of aging” to help them pause or at least slow down a second and think about the research, think about their UX/UI, think about their go-to-market strategies and think about if they’re actually avoiding a critically important consumer for them: The older adult.

What entrepreneurs need is a network, resources, experience and knowledge. All this accumulates with age, so it only makes sense that older entrepreneurs are more likely to be wiser and more fit to take on a venture and to be successful with it.

How important is it that aging is a topic for SXSW?

I don’t think it’s important yet. I think it is growing in importance and significance as more and more people recognize the changing demographic in the United States. That presents opportunities but also increasingly inequity and inequality both of which are becoming greater in this country as younger generations find themselves in a lower standard of living than their parents or their grandparents. I actually think in five years’ time I would predict maybe a quarter of the content here at SXSW would be focused on aging.

Mostly technology and aging don’t seem a perfect fit. What’s going wrong?

A couple of things I think are going wrong:
One is a sort of social barrier that both founders and venture capitalists and others need to overcome and that is the stereotype that older adults aren’t interested in using technology to solve their problems. I think increasingly that’s changing now and the pandemic forced that change.

Related, at least here in the United States, the community-based organizations and the local NGOs that often serve the most vulnerable older adults didn’t see value in technology until the pandemic hit and once the pandemic hit, they had to think creatively about how to change their service delivery to be more digital first.
For example, teaching people very quickly how to use Zoom and Facetime and other things to be able to commune and have meet-ups to reduce social isolation.

Finally, money is an obstacle. I think increasingly we’re seeing some nice investments. Historically in the United States, whenever there is an important initiative they want to tackle, the U.S. government will incentivize the R&D around that to catalyze innovation. While there is a lot of R&D around healthcare and solving disease, there isn’t an equivalent amount of money being invested in social and economic investments to improve the aging experience, including in technology.

Do we need agetech solutions or should we strive for inclusive tech which everybody can use?

I want both. We need to start somewhere and if we start with agetech and calling it that, it pushes back on the stereotype, that I talked about earlier, it embraces it squarely, it creates a new sector for investment. I don’t care what you call it, you can call it caretec or humanitytec. But let’s start somewhere, let’s grow it and nurture it.

How does the ASA tackle the challenges?

The American Society on Aging is the United States’ largest professional society for people who are in the field of ageing. And for the longest time, they didn’t see themselves as being valuable to technology, but the pandemic has forced them to reevaluate that relationship. For example, coming out of the pandemic we have more and more of our members asking us for recommendations on telehealth products, caregiving platforms, telecommunications platforms—to be able to communicate with older adults who don’t have landlines anymore but have mobile devices only.

They are finally waking up to the fact they need to embed technology in their delivery of services, so at ASA what we’re doing is convening, bringing in venture capitalists, founders, start-ups to meet with our membership and work with them. We offer trainings, webinars, annual conferences and educational opportunities for our membership.

For example, we support the CEO of the local NGO on how to adopt the best telehealth product. And we’re advocating for them in Washington and in state capitals for digital literacy programs, because it is all well and good to come up with a fancy new device, but if there isn’t similar money invested in teaching people how to use that device it is going to go nowhere.

There are iPads, boxed up in corners of warehouses, that go unused. And it’s a waste of taxpayer money and a waste of private foundations and donations and other revenue. We have to be better stewards with that money. ASA is taking a hard look at how we can be helpful in this space—as in the United States the nonprofit sector is a $2 trillion marketplace. That often gets ignored by technology start-ups.

There is real opportunity, from hospital systems and academia to community-based organizations. There is a business there, there is business to be had and not simply relying on government reimbursement models, which is the current trend in the United States. There isn’t enough government money to go around to be able to support the development of these start-ups. So ASA is championing a real path forward to support the equal system of technology start-ups and those who are going to use those products.

If a start-up is facing aging, they have the seniors but in addition they have the NGOs working in aging and non-for-profits locally or state-wise as potential clients?

Absolutely. You’re talking about the experts in aging, as I like to call them, the influencers in aging of our membership and they are the ones who older adults trust. Think about all the gerontologists, and geriatricians, their lawyers and their bankers, but also the people that provide them with meals and job retraining and all of these other wonderful social services that now are mainly supported by government dollars in the United States.

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