An Interview with Stephen Johnston: Tech and Aging Innovator

Innovating services for aging adults means bringing together different perspectives and aligning common marketing goals which typically do not overlap. This is what Aging2.0 co-founder Stephen Johnston set out to do when he launched an innovation network that would be global, inter-generational, and interdisciplinary.

Several years ago, Johnston had a light-bulb moment when transitioning from the mobile industry to health services innovation. He saw an opportunity to bridge entrepreneurship, technology, and aging to bring people together and meet real-life needs. Johnston is also passionate about strengthening communities to have sustainable impact.

Aging2.0 is an innovation network focused on technologies specifically for aging adults (gerontechnology). The network supports innovators and entrepreneurs dedicated to challenges and opportunities affecting over one billion older adults worldwide. It was founded by Stephen Johnston and Katy Fike in 2012, with headquarters in San Francisco, and has a global footprint in over 20 countries.

Their network includes some of the largest and most innovative companies in aging and senior care, including leading organizations, individuals, and entrepreneurs. They offer competitions, advice and boot-camps to startups, as well as a networked platform to connect their target audience. So far, Aging2.0 has hosted more than 400 events, connected over 15,000 people in over 20 nations, and grown to over 50 volunteer chapters in North and South America, Europe, and Asia Pacific.

I met with Johnston to find out more about the latest events in aging and Aging2.0 expanding to Europe.

How did you get into addressing aging issues through technology?

I had no particular ambition or ideas to go into aging, but I was very interested in technology from when I studied in business school at Harvard. I did a lot of courses in technology and got excited about innovation and disruption. After business school, I went to Nokia. It turned out that mobile had a much broader value proposition than just phone calls and texting. At that time, I did two very formative things while at Nokia. One is that I got interested in healthcare and mobile health (mHealth) and how the two worlds connected. Another thing was being in a good company that was being disrupted and trying to develop a model for change. So, I created Nokia 2.0 to build a global community of innovators at the company with this idea of leading an innovation revolution within Nokia.

After I left Nokia, there was the opportunity to work with doctors developing mobile apps. One of the clients was a billionaire from Texas who was diagnosed with a rare dementia. I got brought in to do venture-philanthropy research to find a cure for this individual’s disease with a network of researchers. While working with a group of experts in dementia research, there was this lightbulb moment for me was when the family was talking about how they didn’t have access to products and services that would help them as caregivers. I realized there was my opportunity if my mission in life was to build a community of innovators and support these innovators to help families with dementia and older adults.

Nobody was doing anything like this and there wasn’t a playbook for how to build global ecosystem for innovation in aging, so I had to just start making it up. That meant I needed to build a community around me via blogging and events, and that’s how I met Katy who became my co-founder. It became clear that, outside a small group, there weren’t that many experts working in innovation and technology and aging. And that became the genesis of Aging2.0.

What were the starting steps for Aging2.0?

Since my career up until then was pretty corporate, I had a hunger to really do things my way, build something on my own and create a small team that would be super agile. We started by having coffee and meetups in local places and inviting people to come along who were interested in the topic. That was the start of what we are doing now and what we have been doing ever since. The local events had some of the biggest impact on launching Aging2.0 and they kept us grounded. We had older people and startups attending and we were really making those connections. We were starting to build a strong community. Since then, there have been over 400 meetings where 1000+ people attend. We get a lot of validation from people who come to our events and tell us that this is valuable. It’s been growing steadily, but at the heart, it’s still about bringing people together to talk about topics in aging.

It comes back to being a bridge between innovation, technology, and startups on one hand and older adults, aging, and the senior care space on the other hand. We see ourselves as a bridge and that allows us to work with both sides and make sure each side sees the others’ perspective. There’s not a lot of overlap in the technology and startups and aging and senior care worlds and that’s where we’ve really been focusing on building a bridge.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see to using technology to enhance and improve the lives of aging adults?

There are a number of key challenges that we consistently here about that startups face. The first is getting access directly to customers and the user insights about what older adults need. We support startups here by being a bridge to both sides – building trust with customers, with local assisted living communities for example, and connecting technologists to older people and caregivers.

The second challenge is that the space is very fragmented. There isn’t one industry, but we are crossing over several industries and people have to learn to speak the same language. Distribution channels are fragmented which makes it hard for a product to get to market, in particular to reach older people in their homes. Business models are a further challenge. A lot of these companies are doing good and helping people save money for the healthcare system, but at the same time, the healthcare system isn’t rewarding them. Often, it is a private pay model where the companies are actually doing public benefit. I’m looking forward to something like social impact bonds which could start to make some interesting connections between risk sharing and startups on the one hand and with healthcare payers on the other hand in order to open up some funding for these new business models.

What keeps you motivated and passionate about your work?

At the end of the day, it is about making an impact. For me, the way I thought about it was looking at what I think is needed in the world, what I’m good at and like to do, and what can bring in an income. And this is essentially why I got into running a for-profit, for-purpose business. I didn’t want to be purely in the corporate side or purely in the non-profit side, and I wanted to create something sustainable.

My grandmother was one of the most important people to me growing up and inspirational as she was also an entrepreneur. She was extremely kind, compassionate and wise and great with younger people. Aging2.0 hopefully captures some of that; it’s not only young people coming together to build technologies to make older people live better, it’s about how older people can have access to ways to share their perspectives, insights, and values, and discover more purpose. And I think both sides will benefit.

How does Aging2.0 approach challenges and opportunities in health and aging?

Everything we do is human-centric and we are working on the needs of older people, such as health, finance, transport, food, and access to services. This year, we have launched our Grand Challenges which takes 12 big topics relating to fixing today’s care system (such as care coordination and staffing issues), addresses topics relating to thriving in the community (such as social engagement, mobility, and lifestyle products), and also looks towards the more complex issues to be resolved (such as end-of-life planning, dementia, and new models for financial wellness). Our network provides ideas for the priority topics to be worked on, and also helps provide the answers.

What solutions have you come across that you use in your own life?

A big thing for me is the adjacencies, where we have seen services come into the aging space from outside, ones that aren’t designed to be aging products, like ones to count steps. For example, wearables, the Misfit wearable is one that I’m using. I use Amazon Echo a lot, too and we all benefit from having smart homes, not just older people. I imagine self-driving cars, robots and wearables will be categories in which older adults will be the first movers which will generate a good deal of interest by tech companies here in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Why is Aging2.0 expanding into Europe?

We’re building this global community and want to be in 100 countries by 2020. The US is where it started but, being from the UK, I’m excited to be bringing this into Europe. I am really excited for 2 main reasons 1) the amount of innovation, government recognition of the issue and financial support for new solutions is really tremendous in Europe. It’s more of a strategic priority partly because of the aging population in Europe is a higher proportion than in the US. 2) There is a big need for innovative, startup thinking and ways of doing things – bringing in the “Silicon Valley mentality.” There is a good opportunity to build up an innovation ecosystem that has an impact beyond aging – in particular, to spur economic development, which will help companies and cities thrive. In Europe, there’s a lot of energy around smart-, healthy-, and age-friendly cities. Many parts of Europe have strong, community-based cultures, and connecting communities is one of my bigger passions. I was really inspired by a recent meeting in Geneva with the World Health Organization and meeting other organizations and the work they are doing, thinking about where we could be a network and then build global innovation platforms on top of the Age-Friendly Cities Network. I think Europe is going to be a good testbed for that.

Aging2.0 recently held a Startup Bootcamp and Summit in Belgium, what were some of the highlights from the event?

It was our first major European event (previously we have been having local chapter events, but nothing European-wide) and we had people there from 15 countries. The aim was really to get people together on the same page and start a conversation about innovation in aging from the perspective of the continent. There was quite a lot of talk about living labs and how we need to bring older people – for connecting technologies to older people. There was quite a lot of discussion around integrating the needs of older adults and practical applications in this area. One of the things that came out of the event was this need for sharing perspectives and best practices, such as a database of what works. Often, we have been doing this work in silos and making the same mistakes again and again. There was also a strong focus on outcomes, the use of data, measuring impact, and return on investment for services in the aging space.

One theme was ways in which older people can keep living safely in their homes longer. So far, this hasn’t been easy and we have been seeing a lot of fragmentation – a lot of people doing different things, using different and new technologies, and none of it is really tied together. So, that’s one of the things we are going to try to do more of, to make things easier and more holistic. Europe has the potential to have a much more integrated approach. So far, we are still behind, as far as technology companies being in their silos. This is an opportunity where Europe has the potential to take a leading role in building holistic platforms.

What exciting events does Aging2.0 have planned for the rest of the year?

We have many local meetups and events going on, listed on our website.

There is our first Asia-Pacific event and Startup Bootcamp in Taipei on October 12. We are excited for people to bring ideas and for big companies to get involved. The theme this year is “Fun Long Life,” and we will focus on investing in longevity at the individual, organizational, and governmental levels.

We have our annual global innovation conference, OPTIMIZE, November 14-15 in San Francisco. There will be some great speakers, networking and partnership opportunities, a Startup Bootcamp, exhibitions, and over 1,000 innovators, senior and healthcare executives, tech companies, investors, and aging adults coming together around common goals.

Our big strategic push is around the Grand Challenges initiative I mentioned before, which connects needs + design + products + market. Through this, we work with our members to understand what aging adults really need, the issues we should be prioritizing, and how to collectively address them best.

Going forward, we will be looking to deepen our partnerships with organizations in Europe and support our Chapters to become a vital part of the local innovation ecosystems.

Acknowledgement

A big thanks to Stephen Johnston for taking the time to answer my questions! Make sure to check out Aging2.0 for more information.

*This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.*

Carrie Peterson is a gerontologist and consultant in eHealth and Innovation.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Doctor Dementia and the Dementia Adventure and commented:
    Check out my interview with Aging2.0 co-founder Stephen Johnston on bridging innovation and aging!

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