The innovation economy has produced countless disruptions and revolutions in how we consume everything from news to noodles, while creating unprecedented returns along the way for entrepreneurs and investors. Yet relatively little of this energy and capital has focused on the senior care and longevity markets. We’re starting to see that change, however — and Boston can become the critical hub where the world’s longevity-innovation ecosystem will develop.
Boston, with its undisputed position as the life sciences capital of the world, owes a large part of its reigning biological status to the computer startup ecosystem that came first. Long before Kendall Square began measuring lab space by the millions of square feet (and measuring lives saved by the millions as well, thanks to Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine), Boston had already nurtured a virtuous cycle spanning three essential components: a multitude of world-class research universities developing new breakthroughs, a spectrum of innovative companies driving commercialization and acquisitions, and venture capital willing to take significant risks to achieve outsized rewards. These elements continue to attract and retain the most valuable resource of all: a vibrant community of talented innovators.
However, successful innovation in longevity requires an extra ingredient, owing not only to the complexities of the human body and mind as they age, but also the byzantine and counterintuitive nature of almost every aspect of the care delivery and payment systems. Successful aging-market solutions require an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on expertise in software, medicine, biology, finance, policy, and beyond.
There are still barriers to cementing Boston’s role as the world’s longevity innovation hub. First, awareness of the magnitude of the opportunity is still low. For example, the United States spends over $1 trillion annually — nearly 5 percent of GDP — to care for seniors through a system that has existed largely unchanged for decades. Furthermore, the senior population is the wealthiest in history, with a total net worth of over $40 trillion. Longevity is perhaps the last and largest undisrupted market on the planet.
Second, because so much of the longevity market is administered by federal and state governments, the longevity industry needs to include innovators in administration, regulation, and legislation in our entrepreneurial and investment ecosystem. Many fortunes have been made by using technology to outpace regulation — bypassing taxi rules, for example, while enabling strangers to drive each other around for money, or sidestepping hostelry laws while permitting strangers to rent out rooms to each other. Aging, however, is so complex, and the role of government in ensuring safe products and services so all-permeating (and so necessary), that reengineering aging will require a more cooperative, regulation-sensitive approach — for example, integrating the informal, family-delivered home care system with the formal system of hospitals, clinicians, and insurance companies by developing data sharing pathways so that a senior’s doctor can see exactly how their patient has been eating, sleeping, moving, and managing in between visits.
I recently encountered an example of such cooperation through the state-run MassVentures Start Program. Kinto, the age-tech startup where I am CEO, was awarded major grants from the National Institutes of Health through the Small Business Innovation Research program to develop a digital therapy for families coping with Alzheimer’s. However, these funds could not be used for sales or marketing expenses, which presented a challenge for us in finding the money to bring our innovations to market. Fortunately, MassVentures developed a grant program specifically for SBIR winners to address this specific gap, while also providing its grantees access to mentorship and advice. As intended, we’ve been successfully applying those dollars to develop relationships with our local powerhouse health systems and senior care agencies.
The final missing ingredient is a commodity that is paradoxically both plentiful and scarce: money. Despite the recent record levels of venture investment in Boston, disrupting a new market such as longevity requires taking new risks and embracing long timeframes of uncertainty. For all of Boston’s many advantages, we still carry the vestiges of our risk-averse puritanical past, and we tend toward conservatism in our investing even when we are bold at everything else.
The longevity market can change that. The pumps are primed and the engine is running. We still need buy-in from innovators in sectors, particularly local and federal government, which have not traditionally participated in early-venture creation. But the talent we need is readily, locally available. So is insight into the complexities of later life. The last, critical accelerant for Boston’s longevity innovation hub is a Silicon Valley level of visionary capital.
Major investors must put their money where their future is. Only that will enable longevity innovators to address the challenges, and opportunities, of what is literally the market of a lifetime.
Joseph Chung is cofounder and CEO of Kinto and cofounder and managing director of Redstar Ventures.