With the worldwide "age wave" gaining steam, two Twin Cities organizations are on the hunt for a handful of breakthrough business ideas they can quickly bring to market.
Ecumen, a Shoreview-based operator of senior housing communities, is teaming up with innovation advocacy group Mojo Minnesota to launch a contest this week to attract entrepreneurs with technology-based products or services that could help families cope with such issues as long-distance caregiving and memory loss.
There's no money at stake. What the two groups offer is a living lab to test concepts plus access to a wealth of business and financing acumen to get ideas off the shelf and into consumers' hands.
Ecumen owns or manages 55 independent- and assisted-living communities and 17 health care centers in four Midwestern states and Idaho. Mojo Minnesota is an "innovation cooperative" of 13 people whose goal is to support entrepreneurs through mentorship efforts and working with state and federal governments on public policies to support start-ups.
Ecumen's Eric Schubert and Mojo's Ernest Grumbles cooked up the partnership over breakfast last year, believing that the idea is well-suited for Minnesota, which has one of the nation's highest life expectancy rates, and already is home to a wealth of health care innovation and technology firms.
Q: Why a contest? Why not just give out some seed money or set up an innovation lab?
Eric Schubert: We believe there's a great opportunity to connect new approaches and insights of our clients. In the traditional senior-services realm, we've been all about buildings. To handle the coming global age wave, there aren't enough buildings that can be built. There aren't enough people to provide care. And 99.9 percent of people want to age at home.
Ernest Grumbles: We wondered: Is there a way to address these pain points differently using technology? Most start-ups die over an inability to get a product or concept into the hands of customers. Or they have a good idea but don't know how to sell it: They're too early or too late to the market. Entrepreneurs need data, but it's hard to come by. Ecumen is like the R&D lab. It's a national player, and can bring real-life experience and expertise to help create scalability.
Q: What do you have in mind?
Schubert: We are creating, at no cost, an opportunity to build a test bed for real-life deployment. It's a chance for entrepreneurs or established companies to work with Ecumen's clients, families and employees to get feedback and validation and hopefully launch an effective, successful product.
Grumbles: And Mojo Minnesota has investors, entrepreneurs and consultants to add the skill set to bring it to market. We don't want a "one-off solution." We want something scalable, that can easily demonstrate it will have positive impact. We're not sending Ecumen residents on a wild-goose chase.
Q: What are the areas with the greatest need? Housing? Living with disabilities?
Schubert: There are all kinds of needs that haven't been tapped yet, and we think there's opportunity for solutions that are "ageless" because of great design or usability. We've never seen the global demographic shift we're seeing.
Q: How will you pick winners?
Schubert: Cool technologies are being developed all the time, but seniors don't like it or they don't solve a problem. The gadgets are expensive, or they're hard to use and don't consider the end-user. To hit on the right formula that seniors — or their kids — will use and is affordable, would be like gold dust. If someone comes in with a "neat idea," then they'll get an e-mail back with "Neat Idea." We're looking for someone with a real product that will make someone's life better.
Grumbles: Aging presents a tremendous opportunity for global innovation. More than 2.4 billion people will be over the age of 60 by 2050. The market is moving fast. This is one of those areas where Minnesota can't stand down. It has to get on the horse and ride fast, or we'll get left behind. We don't want to be our own isolated ecosystem, we want to be a magnet — drawing more companies, ideas and, ultimately, jobs into the state.
For information on the contest, go to www.agepower.org