AGE-WELL took years of planning, followed by months of frantic activity to launch. But the scientific directors could point to a single October day in Calgary as the most memorable and satisfying. It was the first conference and Annual General Meeting for the new Network of Centres of Excellence.
“The day that we had—it was constant energy. People were really excited about what had happened,” said AGE-WELL Scientific Co-Director Alex Mihailidis.
About 200 people came for the gathering–the first time that researchers working on the core projects could meet as a group, joined with commercial and community partners along with board members, trainees and research associates.
“We received extremely positive comments from participants and the networking opportunities that it provided for our members” said Mihailidis.
“It was a very strong testament to what we had put together.”
Mihailidis and Co-Director Andrew Sixsmith were sitting in a meeting room at AGE-WELL’s headquarters at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, part of the University Health Network, reflecting on a whirlwind year and looking ahead to the next steps in the life of the network. They agreed that in some ways Canada is a late-starter in the field of technology and aging—the European Union has been funding research projects since the early 1990s.
But they believe we are still strongly in the game, because successes elsewhere have been halting. Despite money poured into research not a large number of technologies have made their way into the hands of end users. It is a difficult market to crack into because of the varied and often complex needs of older people.
AGE-WELL hopes to do better because of a commitment to involve end users at all stages of the research, development and marketing process and also because of its core strategy of fostering collaboration among researchers, commercial enterprises and community organizations.
“By coming into it now, it’s actually a good time to be in it because I think people are realizing we have to put more of a focus on getting our intellectual property into the real world,” said Sixsmith.
“There’s increasing take-up of new technologies generally among the senior population. They’re not so technophobic as we imagined them to be.”
AGE-WELL’s first year was mainly about getting the essential elements of the network in place: establishing a management and governance structure, led by Managing Director Bridgette Murphy, launching the 25 Core Research Projects and developing its training program, EPIC (Early Professionals, Inspired Careers), to nurture the next generation of researchers.
More than 160 emerging researchers and young professionals are getting support as part of the mandate to train highly qualified personnel (HQP).
Crucially, each of the technology-focused research projects has an industrial partner to facilitate the commercialization and marketing of new technology.
The network already has an impressive list of corporate partners, including major players in technology, long term care and property development. Others continue to join, buying into the AGE-WELL mission. Just recently a major pharmaceutical company jumped aboard, a firm that Mihailidis points out has been working on developing medications for Alzheimer’s, but that realizes that drugs are not going to be the ultimate answer for some time.
“So they’re actually looking to establish a division looking at everyday technologies to work with people with dementia and their caregivers. And they came to AGE-WELL,” he said.
“That sort of thing is encouraging because down the line, it’s the commercial world that’s going to have to get products into the marketplace,” added Sixsmith.
As AGE-WELL reaches its first anniversary, the goal is to continue to build on the framework that has been established and to encourage the researchers to drive ahead with the development of their innovations. Two more funding programs are set to be announced early in the New Year.
The network plans to announce at least one and possibly two “innovation hubs”—geographic locations that can be hothouses for the germination, development and commercialization of technological innovations for older adults and caregivers.
“This will allow people who have an idea to float it past people very quickly to see if it has commercial potential and to ask if end users need it,” said Sixsmith.
Even in the age of skype and instant electronic communication, often the best means of nurturing new ideas is to have human beings walk down the hall or into the next building and have a conversation.
Both scientific directors recognize the challenges ahead. While technology has seemingly-endless potential, it still must speak to the needs of the people who will ultimately be using it—and they cannot always easily articulate what they want, for the simple reason that they may not know what is possible.
Mihailidis recalled the famous quote, attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
As AGE-WELL grows, it will strive to bridge that gap.