By Lisa Suennen
First Posted at Venture Valkyrie on 6/4/2013
“Invention is the talent of youth, as judgment is of age.” Jonathan Swift
This week I went to the AARP Health Innovation@50+ event to watch entrepreneurs pitch their companies targeted to solving healthcare-related problems of people over 50 and what I saw was a bunch of grown-ups get schooled by a gang of little kids. Not to sell the 10 entrepreneurial companies showcased at this excellent event short, but Team Robolution, made up of six 9- and 10-year-old children from Carlsbad, California, really showed the crowd how it’s done.
But let me back up. I have been lucky enough to emcee the AARP Health Innovation@50+ Live Pitch program twice—last week in Las Vegas and last year in New Orleans. The event was conceived by the AARP innovation team, spearheaded by Jody Holtzman and Jeff Makowka, in an attempt to encourage entrepreneurial innovation that results in products and services to effectively serve the over-50 healthcare marketplace. And by serve I mean make them healthier, happier and lead better lives overall. This year 127 companies vied to be among the 10 who pitched their wares to a large audience of venture capitalists, angel investors, large and small corporations and, most importantly, a large cadre of AARP members who could give them real-time feedback about whether their product really met a perceived need of the consumer audience. A panel of “professional judges” was there to provide feedback and select a winner in the pitch contest (judges included Brad Fluegel of Walgreens, Brian Chee of Polaris, Nina Kjellson of InterWest, Geoff Clapp of Better and Rock Health, and me) and the consumer audience was there to select a second winner based on their preference.
The companies that delivered their story to an audience of about 250 people included: Adheretech, CareMerge, CoPatient, Home Team Therapy, Labdoor, LifeVest, Lively, SoundFest, Veristride and Wello. LabDoor was the company selected both by the venture/entrepreneur judges and by the AARP consumer audience as the most promising. Several of the companies were also quite impressive, offering an array of products and services designed to serve the more than 45% of Americans who are now over 50 as they seek to live healthy, address caregiver challenges, and grow old in the comfort of their own home.
But meanwhile, as the grown-ups competed against each other to be declared best-in-show, Team Robolution, comprised of 4th graders Aiko, Katrina, Nick, Sanjiv, Sara, and Theo, snuck right past us at ankle level to steal the entrepreneurial thunder. OK, I know, they aren’t really much shorter than I am, but they are certainly smarter. And what they did was demonstrate effective entrepreneurship and start-up culture at its best.
So what were these kids doing at an AARP Annual Convention besides bringing down the median age by a factor of 10? They were there as the winners of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) AARP Life@50+ Award for their invention of the Hydroband.
According to the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) website, “FLL is a robotics program for 9 to 14 year olds which is designed to get children excited about science and technology — and teach them valuable employment and life skills. Teams, composed of up to ten children with at least one adult coach, can also be associated with a pre-existing club or organization, homeschooled, or just be a group of friends who wish to do something awesome.” Apparently these programs also allow kids to build, program and operate LEGO Mindstorms NXT robots, whatever the heck those are. Man, I am getting old.
FLL was founded 1989 by Dean Kamen, who is famous for investing the first infusion pump for medical use, the Segue (which spawned one of the funniest South Park episodes of all time) and for being involved with the X Prize Foundation and a wealth of other entrepreneurial and innovation initiatives. The “FIRST” in FIRST LEGO League stands for “For inspiration and recognition in science and technology”. FLL states its mission as one “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”
Anyway, FLL’s most recent challenge was for these teams of children to look past their own brief life experiences and into those of their grandparents in order to improve the quality of life for seniors, defined as helping them continue to be independent, engaged, and connected in their communities.
Brainiac kids everywhere entered the FLL senior challenge and Team Robolution came in 1st in the AARP sponsored portion of the challenge. They showed up in Vegas, where they are too young to do anything fun and too old to be carried in Baby Bjorns into the casino by their parents, to collect their AARP prize, staff a trade show booth where they could show off the Hydroband, and generally shame us older people into realizing how lazy we are by comparison.
In case you are wondering, and you should be, here is a description of the Hydroband from Team Robolution’s marketing website:
The patent-pending HydroBand is a user-friendly hydration monitor that reminds seniors to drink water. Worn as a wristband, the HydroBand uses a transdermal (non-invasive) sodium biosensor to painlessly and continuously measure interstitial sodium levels. Employing flexible electronics, the information is sent wirelessly to the wristband display where the user can view his or her hydration status through a color indicator. The HydroBand also features an audible or vibration alarm and a water droplet symbol to alert users before their hydration status becomes dangerously low and reminds them to drink when needed.
Water, which makes up 60% of our body weight, is essential for survival and proper body function. Dehydration in the elderly is a serious medical concern, and if not identified, the significant clinical outcomes can include reduced consciousness, lowered blood pressure, dizziness and fainting spells. Emergency room visits due to dehydration are higher for the elderly in comparison to younger adults. Dehydration is one of the ten most common causes of hospitalization among elderly patients, resulting in billions of dollars in hospital costs. During heat waves, seniors have a higher risk for severe dehydration and possible death.
The HydroBand addresses the critical problem of dehydration by providing real-time, personal biometric feedback that can be used to make lifestyle changes with a view to maintaining hydration homeostasis and a healthy lifestyle.
What was so impressive about the kids was the way they went about developing their product. They started with customers. They interviewed grandparents and other gray-haired folk about challenges they experience in their lives. They found some common themes about dehydration and validated the market issues with physicians. They went on a series of field trips to learn about the problem and potential solutions at Scripps and Kaiser and got an education in biosensors from people at UC San Diego. And then they set out to build it. In other words, first they identified a problem, then they researched and validated it, then they figured out how to solve it. In that order.
“So what?” you might say. And I will tell you that for every entrepreneur that works in this order, there are 500 that start by inventing some technology and then head out in search of a problem to solve, sporting an “if I build it they will come” attitude. And those 500 will be flat out wrong.
What was equally impressive about these kids was their poise and confidence in presenting the compelling story of the Hydroband to the several hundred people many times their age. Their pitch was delivered in team format where each child took a turn and went to the end of the line, Doe-a-Deer/Sound of Music style. And unlike some of the adult pitches, these minipreneurs covered every important thing any investor would want to know about: science, manufacturing issues, competition, market demand, intellectual property, you name it. They did everything but try to sell one to every man, woman and VC in the room, which I am sure they would have done if they had been able to produce in volume (actually, they are seeking money and/or licensing partners to bring the Hydroband to market).
The best part, however, was watching these future MIT graduates casually throwing out words like “cingulate cortex,” “interstitial fluid,” and “homeostasis” as if they were saying “Barbie doll,” “goldfish crackers,” and, well, “Lego.” They also talked about the importance of making the device cost-effective in a way that many healthcare CEOs ignore. As the professional judges for the AARP Health Innovation@50+ event watched in awe as Robolution presented their deal, serial entrepreneur Geoff Clapp, turned to me and said, “I don’t want to hire them, I want to work for them but I’m not sure they’d hire me!”
The other best part of this experience took place while I was standing in the Robolution booth talking with a few of the kids’ parents (a free exhibit booth was one of their prizes from AARP). I was watching the kids from a distance and observed that when there were adults in the booth asking questions, the kids were as professional and serious and well-spoken as the best trained McKinsey consultant. And when they were alone and thought no one was watching they were skipping around and laughing and punching each other and acting like little kids. It was awesome. I see very little skipping in my average week and now I am hyper-aware that this is reducing the quality of my work experience.
I had the chance to talk with the kids, who were utterly charming in addition to smart. In an extended chat with Theo, who is actually taller than me thus making me feel particularly inadequate on multiple fronts, I learned that the biggest challenge they had was learning enough about biosensors to formulate the product idea. The coolest part of the challenge, he added, was getting an all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas where they got to be the youngest people at the AARP convention. Yep, no contest there. It occurred to me that if you add up the ages of all 6 of the kids on Team Robolution they are not even old enough to qualify for a senior discount at a typical movie theater.
Aiko told me that the kids spent an average of 20 hours a week together on this project in addition to their normal school work and soccer and piano lessons and whatever else they do in real life (e.g., invent cold fusion?). It was an incredible testament to drive, determination and a thirst for knowledge. Plus maybe just a little bit of competitive spirit. Just a little.
So while one would think that the greatest challenges of seniors would likely be solved by people who have actually lived long enough to pay taxes or have grown tall enough to see over the kitchen counter, it turns out that the children may be our future after all. Grown-up entrepreneurs everywhere: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.