When Ethel Percy Andrus founded AARP in 1958, she was focused on innovation of all sorts.
A former teacher and high school principal, Dr. Andrus was a font of groundbreaking ideas. She established a community residence so older people would not have to live alone, she organized group travel to make dream trips affordable to retirees, she opened lifelong learning centers to keep minds active, and — on a more physical front — she had a “House of Freedom” built to showcase a concept that we now call “aging in place.” And that’s just to name a few.
AARP today is as busy as its founder was 60 years ago, percolating fresh ideas to serve people over 50 who have been neglected by the marketplace. Though they generate $7.6 trillion a year in economic activity, 50-plus consumers attract only 5 percent of advertising dollars.
AARP has long recognized the “longevity economy” — the economic opportunity that America’s older population represents — and it has actively encouraged product developers and marketers to respond to this “longevity economy" with solutions focused on the interests and needs of people age 50-plus.
Thanks to Dr. Andrus and other AARP leaders through the past 60 years, innovation is in AARP’s DNA, and it has taken the lead at driving innovative solutions to empower people to choose how they live as they age. At the forefront is the AARP Innovation Labs, which provides an environment for AARP to develop new products internally and at the same time engage with the start-up ecosystem, academia and other experts to help shape and co-create new solutions.
Judy Davis/Hoachlander Davis Photography
Hatching its own innovation ecosystem
The work got a jump start with the opening in 2015 of the Hatchery, a whimsically contemporary 10,000-square-foot workspace at the Washington, D.C., headquarters. It’s name is a reminder of the chicken coop that is part of Dr. Andrus’ AARP founding story. When she met an impoverished retired teacher living in an actual chicken coop because she could not afford a home, Dr. Andrus made it her mission to help older adults build better lives.
The Hatchery’s mission is to bring together the best, most creative entrepreneurs to share ideas for keeping people 50 and older top of mind as they design new products and services. With the Hatchery at the center of AARP Innovation Labs, Andy Miller, senior vice president of innovation and product development at AARP, says it’s his mission is to build a “culture of innovation.”
Miller’s team at AARP works with a bevy of businesses to explore new concepts and help some of them grow their ideas into viable products with appeal to 50-plus consumers. The team uses design challenges, pitch competitions, and AARP’s relationships with universities and other start-up accelerators to co-create products and services.
For example, AARP worked with Pulse@MassChallenge (now MassChallenge HealthTech) and formed collaborations with two start-up companies using virtual reality. MassChallenge is a large accelerator, and its Pulse program gives start-ups access to mentors, professionals in their field and business “champions” such as AARP.
In the 2017 challenge, for example, AARP discovered VRHealth, which uses virtual reality to allow patients who have had strokes or other disabling events to do physical therapy at home, and Rendever, which entertains and engages residents of long-term care facilities with virtual reality experiences. Residents can put on a headset, alone or along with others, to have adventures that are beyond their physical limitations — a journey back to childhood haunts, for example, or to a new distant land.
This year, AARP has collaborated with three start-ups focused on advancing health care and improving patient well-being — Folia Health, Orbita and Pillo. Folia Health develops web and mobile tools to enable caregivers to capture and share daily observations that can be shared with a patient’s doctor; Orbita uses artificial intelligence and voice technology to improve patient monitoring; and Pillo, a robot and voice-first countertop device, leverages voice and health data to guide users on medication and care plan adherence.
“[They] are focusing on some of the biggest health issues of our day, including diabetes management, remote patient monitoring and social isolation,” Miller says. “With 10,000 people turning 65 each day, these technology solutions align well with AARP’s social mission to empower people to choose how they live as they age.”
Good ideas from within
AARP also creates its own products and services. AARP recently rolled out “Let’s Be Well," a collection of curated boxes that empower people living with chronic conditions to live their best lives. In partnership with the American Diabetes Association, AARP recently introduced its first box, aimed at people newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It includes expertly chosen products and information, such as a cookbook and meal planner, that can help people take important steps to manage the disease.
In addition, AARP Innovation Labs launched Confetti, an online platform that makes it easy to collect and package family photos and keepsakes and share them with family and friends. A simple template makes formatting uncomplicated. AARP staff were part of the product development team, testing it and offering feedback to guide future versions.
Going forward, to spark more such ideas and solutions, AARP Innovation Labs plan to hold “Innovation Jams” for its employees and the external innovation community.
Dr. Andrus would be proud.
Published October 5, 2018