SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Everyone hears about the huge baby boom generation—78 million of them in the United States with the oldest of the group now on Social Security. But much of the youth-oriented business world has ignored 50-plus demographic, commonly appealing them with items like "anti-aging" creams. But a recent conference hosted by Santa Clara University's (SCU) Leavey School of Business was decidedly pro-aging.
The Ninth Annual Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, held on the SCU campus in June, sent a strong message: Boomers spend money--$2.5 trillion per year--and there is not enough technology, products services, or employment opportunities to serve their needs and those of their elderly parents. Business innovations for this "silver market" will be especially important for the aging populations in Latino and other ethnic communities in the U.S.
"There's a lot of momentum around the marketplace, the costumers and the venture community," said Mary Furlong, EdD, founder and co-producer of the summit.
Furlong, Dean's Executive Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Leavey Business School, developed the conference to connect entrepreneurs from around the country interested in serving the boomer market with venture capitalists, corporations, nonprofits, business strategists and analysts of the boomer marketplace.
$10,000 Competition Winner
The summit also hosted a competition—with a $10,000 top prize--in search of new business plans and market ideas. The contest brought to Silicon Valley great business talent from around the nation, who are reaching out for investors.
This year's competition demonstrated the progress the conference has had since it started in 2004. Competitors pitched a variety of ideas ranging from a less painful and more efficient procedure to remove kidney stones, to a website that allows the users to customize their funerals to celebrate a person's live for future generations.
Winning this year's competition was HyloMimetics, which is developing a "bioinspired molecule that prevents the progression of osteoarthritis and restores healthy cartilage." In plain words, their product promises to use new biomedical technology to heal debilitating osteoarthritis without invasive surgery.
A panel of experts in aging, business analysts and venture capitalists heard the presentation in an on-stage presentation reminiscent of the reality TV show, "The Shark Tank," and deliberated to select the best business pitch. Although HyloMimetics got the giant check, the other competitors got a valuable opportunity to present their products in front of many potential investors, partners and experienced strategists.
"We had some very talented entrepreneurs out here," Furlong said. "Large companies can look at this as potential people to invest in, and entrepreneurs can find people that they can work with in the future. It's the beginning of building an online community." Many past non-winners, she noted, have met investors at the conference, who helped move their products to the marketplace.
Furlong, the author of Turning Silver into Gold: How to Profit in the New Boomer Marketplace (Financial Times Press, 2007), continued, "We had more solid plans. It's always been great, but there's just more people interested in this space."
She explained, "Baby boomers are now right in the middle of 44 to 66, so there are so many people coping with issues related to helping older people, there needs to be a revolution in the field of aging. And it's not going to come from Washington (D.C.), but from entrepreneurs."
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are only about 16,000 nursing homes for elders and people with disabilities, and merely 1.6 million beds for such a large senior population, and far too few of the more residential assisted living facilities.
Eldercare and Jobs for Latinos
Furlong believes these numbers open up a great opportunity for investment in this field—including opportunities for businesses promoting wellness and illness prevention. At the same time, new investment to meet consumer demand would generate new sources of work, especially for the Latinos.
"Caregiving and services for older adults could be a real answer to employment and jobs for the Latino community in this country," said Furlong. "So it's an entrepreneurial play, business play and a play for securing the future. Really, it's a play that can benefit humanity. The sense of family in the Latino community is very important. We would love to see a whole new brand of entrepreneurs. It is the future."
There are, however, not enough investments in these fields. The annual conference seeks to drive investments into areas such as caregiving and other solutions for aging people.
Some of the different panels of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists at the meeting agreed that investors only tend to fund projects that promise large returns in the short term. The demographics for such investments mostly target younger people with social media and the Internet capturing much the attention of venture capitalists these days.
Market analyst Laurie Orlov, who heads Aging in Place Techology Watch said boomers tend to be "digital immigrants," who have a thick "digital accent"-- not "digital natives" like their children who grew up with video games and computers. The older generations worked and played without smartphones or digital tablets with touchscreens. There were no social media outlets. But they are increasing becoming technology avid adapters, she said.
Orlov noted that Pew Research Center studies show that while only 30 percent of Americans over age 65 are online, 77 percent of people boomers 50-64 use the Internet. That compares to 97 percent of people 18-30.
Aging boomers are indeed Tweeting, Facebooking and finding apps for this, that and everything else. People at the conference were upbeat about the potential of the boomer market and dismissed the Pew Center's age charts on technology adoption, saying they are not as dynamic as people themselves.
Nowadays, people retire later in life, are more active than before, and are dying later than before—more than 30 years longer than just a century ago. The longevity revolution should be very good for business.
Gerardo Fernandez wrote this article as part of a Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Journalism Fellowship, a collaboration of New America Media and Mary Furlong & Associates.