Startups focusing on aging have a home in new Kendall Square incubator
CAMBRIDGE — Business incubators tend to be buzzing hives of young disrupters. But a new co-working space for startups in Kendall Square is aiming for a different vibe.
Agency, ramping up in a hip new Cambridge Innovation Center building at 245 Main St., styles itself as a “global longevity collective.” It’s designed as a gathering place for aging innovators. And it’s drawing an intergenerational mix of entrepreneurs — with a generous sprinkle of gray hair — working on projects to make aging less disruptive, and more fulfilling, for older folks.
“We want to accelerate the velocity of progress in this field,” said Agency’s cofounder and launch director, Danielle Duplin. “The aim is to commercialize some incredible products and services that help the world’s aging populations and their families and care partners.”
As better medicines, diets, and fitness regimens extend life spans, populations are growing older in most developed countries. Older people in the United States alone represent an $8 trillion market, according to Joe Coughlin, founder and director of the MIT Age Lab. But the market demand isn’t only for consumer goods: It’s for help with the myriad health, housing, transportation, and lifestyle challenges that accompany the graying of the planet.
“Everyone knows we have to start thinking seriously about these issues,” said Tim Rowe, founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which is hosting the new collective.
While startups are still being recruited, nine are already working out of its second-floor space. They’re developing products ranging from sensor-equipped braces called “exoskeletons” for people with injuries or neurological conditions to smart watches that detect falls and prompt seniors to take their meds at designated times.
“My mom was always forgetting her medications, and I was always calling her in India to remind her,” said Jayanthi Narasimhan, chief executive of WatchRX, which is working on a smart watch for seniors. “They won’t have to do any setup — just charge it and wear it.”
Kay Corry Aubrey, 64, moved her design research firm, Usability Resources, from Bedford to be part of Agency. The company helps its clients design and test products, such as consumer robots, that are easy to use and age-friendly. “I just thought it would be cool to be here,” she said. “There’s a groundswell of innovation in the age space in the Boston area, and I wanted to be part of it.”
Agency was launched in November, with a $100,000 seed grant from the Baker administration, which is trying to position Massachusetts — a high-tech and health-care leader — as a hub for innovation about aging.
The idea grew out of a hackathon held at the center’s Venture Cafe in 2017. It was run by Captains of Innovation, a group connecting big corporations with entrepreneurs, and sponsored by Sompo, a Japanese conglomerate that operates a chain of senior-care facilities. Boston-area innovators proposed a rapid-fire battery of ideas, ranging from new tests for biomarkers that indicate diseases to movement-tracking remote monitors to a public awareness campaign, “Talk to Tilly,” that combats social isolation by encouraging people to befriend their neighbors.
Agency is a bid to replicate that model in a more sustainable way, Duplin said, and to capture the sense of possibility and spirit of cross-pollination at the hackathon. Other Agency spaces are planned to open over the next two years at innovation centers in Providence, Philadelphia, Miami, Tokyo, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Rowe said that a pair of the Kendall Square innovation center’s other affiliates, Lab Central and MassRobotics, are helping to extend life expectancy through new therapies and support vehicles — ironically expanding the ranks of old people facing the challenges that Agency will be trying to solve. “This is like Day One of Lab Central or MassRobotics,” he said. “It has equal potential for huge impact.”
While it’s not the first age-focused incubator — AARP runs the Hatchery innovation lab in Washington, a Cambridge holding company called Life Biosciences has launched multiple longevity startups, and other efforts are underway on the West Coast — Agency plans a multipronged approach. Cofounders Duplin and Carrie Allen plan a series of programs focusing on everything from health care issues to senior entrepreneurships.
At the honeycomb-style working space here, complete with conference room and well-stocked snack bar, a sense of community is forming among those who have taken up residence.
One resident entrepreneur, Mary Cronin, is completing her last semester teaching at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management while transitioning to a new career. Cronin recently cofounded 4Q Catalyst, a startup dedicated to encouraging and publishing over-60 writers like herself. It also offers a software platform that helps people interview their aging parents or grandparents to create family memoirs through “conversational writing.”
Recently, chatting over coffee with another Agency entrepreneur, 31-year-old Codi Gharagouzloo — who somewhat sheepishly admitted to being the youngest here — Cronin learned her startup is eligible to apply for a National Institutes of Health grant for “social engagement” companies. At another coffee, with Agency launch director Duplin, they discussed starting a Founders Over 55 group for Agency member companies and others this spring.
Cronin, who has written 11 business books, hopes she’ll get the opportunity to help other entrepreneurs, many of whom are working on health or science enterprises. “It’s about being there to give feedback informally or listen to a pitch,” she said.
Gharagouzloo, the chief executive of Imaginostics, is a scientist who invented a medical imaging technology that can more easily detect Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. His company is trying to commercialize the technology, potentially in partnership with a biopharma company. Gharagouzloo said he looks forward to collaborating at Agency with other scientific entrepreneurs but also with aging innovators in other fields.
“Everyone comes with their unique experience,” he said. “They’re rounding up the companies, and it will be really exciting to see how the space develops.”