On Disruption and Brain Drain

Sameer Dhar paced and pitched with the timeless ardour of a young man passionate about a good idea.

“We’re a group of 20 year old guys who are willing to do whatever it takes to understand our user,” he told an audience in the Ontario College of Art and Design’s Great Hall.

Then the titters started when Dhar mixed comedy with business.

“We’ve urinated in pretty much every incontinence product that there is out there. “

His innovation is called Senassure, a reusable patch that sits on the outside of incontinence products. It detects moisture and transmits data to nursing stations in care homes, allowing staff to know with certainty when a person with dementia is in need of a change of garment.

Dhar was one of several entrepreneurs seeking support for their startups as part of the #30in30in30 initiative launched by Aging 2.0, a global network that is promoting innovation in senior care.

AGE-WELL co-sponsored the event at OCAD University, one of 30 pitch sessions happening in 30 cities worldwide in 30 days. Winners will be invited to pitch in a virtual semi-final pitch event with Aging2.0. The winners from the semi-final will be invited to pitch at the Age-Tech Expo Nov19-20 in San Francisco.

alex aging2AGE-WELL Joint Scientific Director Dr. Alex Mihailidis welcomed the participants with a keynote address that was a dose of hard realism coupled with a call to action.

“Unfortunately the technology and aging landscape is very messy and fragmented,” Dr. Mihailidis said in his speech titled Disruption Ahead: Transforming Technology for Aging and Healthcare.”

“There’s a lot of work going on around the world in this area but there’s not a lot of discussion between us, not a lot of collaboration, not a lot of partnerships. It’s actually holding the field back as a collective.”

He lamented that AGE-WELL regularly hears multiple pitches for the exact same product and that the solutions produced to date are often ineffective and expensive, with not enough consultation with the people who will be the ones using them: older people and their caregivers.

Dr. Mihailidis encouraged the entrepreneurs to not fear competition, to embrace collaboration and to accept risk.

AGE-WELL’s mission is to bring all the specialties together in the common cause of promoting innovation, to understand the ramifications of technological change and to always reach out to the end users as crucial players in the process.

seniors voting aging2At the #30in30in30 event there was a vivid demonstration of the commitment to consultation: several older people were seated in the front row and asked to cast their votes on the most effective presentations.

But beneath the earnest pitches there were signs of trouble for Canada.

Sameer Dhar, the University of Alberta graduate promoting his incontinence sensor, moved to Maryland because of frustration in finding funding in Canada for his startup.

“Last December we realized that the Canadian market in long term care and the way it’s funded does not really incentivize innovation in improving quality of care,” Dhar said in an interview after his presentation.

He noted that his product could prevent complications such as skin irritation caused by soiled incontinence garments. But a problem averted does not show up on the books as a cost saving, nor does the benefit of a resident who is more comfortable than she might be without his sensor.

“It’s unfortunate, it’s really disappointing for us as Canadian entrepreneurs, wanting to make a difference here at home in Canada.”

Dr. Alex Mihailidis nodded his head when told of Dhar’s complaint.

“It’s not unusual at all. It’s amazing when I go down to Silicon Valley and see the number of startups that are Canadian.”

But now it was his turn for a passionate pitch.

“It’s absolutely true and that’s what AGE-WELL is all about. AGE-WELL is funded to help develop that support in Canada and ensure that these startups don’t leave and go to the US.”

In its early months AGE-WELL has already funded 25 Core Research Projects, is building partnerships among universities, commercial companies and community organizations and is on track to support more than 160 emerging researchers.

In addition, AGE-WELL will be backing young entrepreneurs and startups through a host of funding and training programs soon to be launched.

All with the goal of improving the lives of older people, to build an industry with enormous potential and to give young entrepreneurs a reason to stay home and prosper in Canada.