Abby Levy on the Startups Changing the Face of Aging
Nancy Griffin interviews the Managing Partner & co-founder of early-stage venture capital fund Primetime Partners.
Abby Levy has spent her career helping businesses and consumer brands grow as an operator, entrepreneur, and advisor. Prior to Primetime Partners, she was an executive at SoulCycle and founding President of Thrive Global with Arianna Huffington. She began her career at McKinsey & Company then led product development at OXO International. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School.
NG: Tell us about your background and what led you to the formation of Primetime Partners?
AL: I've been in business my whole career, I'm the daughter of a small business owner, and have always gravitated towards new products and services. I spent my career in marketing and as an operator on brands such as OXO International, which makes a “good grips” brand of kitchen tools and gadgets, to Hearst media, to founding Thrive Global with Arianna Huffington, which put me in the health and wellness space.
Most recently I was at SoulCycle, working on the digital business before diving into the sector around innovation and aging. That was really driven by two things. One is personal narrative. I’m lucky that my parents, now 85 and 77, are perfectly healthy. When my dad retired in his early 60s, I was dismayed by the lack of products, services and experiences designed for the aging population. Once you hit a certain age, you are discounted by a lot of elements of society, including entrepreneurs.
That was one part of the impetus for starting Primetime—to develop new businesses geared to this tremendously large and important aging population. The second was really the McKinsey girl in me, looking at the sheer numbers: 25% of our population is age 65. Plus, it's the fastest growing segment globally, controlling about two thirds the net worth of our country, and three quarters of the healthcare spend. It's also an important segment that is absolutely underserved by the entrepreneurial community.
So that's how I got to Primetime Partners with Alan Patricof, who has been an investor for half a century, starting with a prominent private equity firm APAX and then venture firm Greycroft The two of us paired up in March of 2020 and founded Primetime, an early-stage venture fund focusing on entrepreneurs who want to create businesses that improve the quality of living of older adults.
Something else monumental happened in March of 2020: the entire world shut down with COVID. One would think this was not a good time to start a business. But, because the whole world was focused on what was going on with older adults and the virus—the press in spring of 2020, was focused on concerns for our aging population—it actually was an amazing time to start a business in this space. At the same time, you had changes in regulations. So, for example, telemedicine was approved as a reimbursable expense by Medicare.
NG: Tell us a little bit about the entrepreneurs and innovations in Primetime’s portfolio.
AL: Well, as a mother of three human babies, one can never have favorites. But I can say a few things…
We can see in our data that there are a lot more entrepreneurs entering the space—we've looked at 800 businesses over the past year across healthcare, FinTech (financial technology), consumer tech, media, prop tech (property technology). What gets us excited are the businesses building major pieces of infrastructure serving the older population that don't exist today.
A perfect example, we're invested in a business called GetSetUp, a live peer-to-peer video learning platform for older adults to combat social isolation, such a key issue exacerbated by Covid. In some ways, they are the experience economy for older adults. The company offers online education for older adults, on topics ranging from culture to history, to fitness to how to use technology. Four million older adults monthly engage with the platform. There's a zillion social media platforms for Gen Z, but not for older adults. GetSetUp is building a major new piece of infrastructure to serve this audience. This is a great example of a small entrepreneurial startup partnering with major health plans and governmental agencies. It's a new world.
Another area of infrastructure that we're really interested in is financial security. Not to be Debbie Downer, but 50% of older Americans are going to run out of money. Our longevity is outpacing our bank accounts, and our retirement habits aren't changing. So, we've invested in three different businesses that are focused on financial planning, banking, and new financial products specifically designed for this back half of life. Paying for home care, tapping into your home equity and managing your retirement income are critical services to help older Americans achieve greater financial security.
Another major area that needs infrastructure is family caregiving. We've invested in four businesses focused on family caregivers and building financial support, relevant information, and access to care navigation so family can be the best caregivers they can be. There are 50 million unpaid, untrained family caregivers in the US—people like you and me—that might be taking care of a spouse or a parent. The “sandwich generation” has gotten a lot of press recently in the Biden administration with the Cares Act, because of the tremendous financial burden. Corporations actually lose productivity because employees are taking care of loved ones.
These are just some examples of areas where we saw tremendous whitespace. There needs to be infrastructure and capacity built from the private sector. Our government does a great job in terms of benefits and programs, but that's only a piece of the puzzle.
NG: How do your clients reach their target consumers?
AL: We're seeing a lot of movement in the direct-to-consumer acquisition channel. Not to “plump our own feathers,” but we are probably the only venture fund focused on understanding what drives acquisition engagement of older adults. Until recently, only 5% of marketing dollars were spent on the 50+ population, and we hope to see our companies change that through high impact direct-to-consumer marketing.
We are seeing great traction on Facebook from acquisition. The largest, fastest growing audience on Facebook is 55+. We're also seeing effective cost of acquisition for older adults on Pinterest. In terms of search, Dr. Google is still a big resource for all Americans, but particularly older Americans. Then, lastly, referrals and affiliate programs have also been a big driver of leads for companies as these new brands are “borrowing” brand equity from existing, trusted brands..
NG: On the Primetime website, there is a section on Senior Living as a Service (SLaaS), which is a SeniorTrade 2022 trend. Can you talk about that?
AL: Aging in Place is not a Covid side effect. There are some facts that haven’t changed. In our country, there are about 2 million senior living beds, and 90% of people want to age in place. People want to live in their own homes—it’s psychological, it's human nature. But what is new is the awareness that coming out of COVID, it's really challenging – costly - to age in place. Senior living as a service dis-aggregates the elements of senior living, such as healthcare, nursing, medication management, and social determinants of health like fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental wellness, socialization, and enrichment. How do you take all of those things that you get in a senior living facility and provide it in an affordable, achievable way in the home? We have several businesses that can be brought into the home. You will also see a lot of emphasis on hospital at home.
That's just a small piece of what senior-living-as-a-service entails. The biggest challenge is who pays for it, because unless you're on Medicaid, in a nursing home, most of senior living is private pay. It is not yet cost effective to take each of these services and pay for it in the home. That is the barrier to more “SLaaS” businesses entering the market. At the same time, we have seen several senior living operators keen to push their offerings “into the neighborhood”.
NG: I want to segue back to your background. I don't know if you've read the Longevity Economy by Joseph Coughlin. He devotes four pages to telling the OXO story, and it is amazing that you were part of that company’s growth more than 20 years ago.
AL: When I joined OXO 21 years ago, ten years into the company’s history, there were only 20 people and about 40 million in sales, and now they're about a billion in sales. It was definitely a tremendous ride. The key differentiator of OXO (for those who aren't familiar, it started as a kitchen tools and gadgets business) was human insights and design. We worked with seven different design firms where every project started with observing people and seeing how they did their everyday activities. For me that was foundational in terms of watching and listening to behavior. That's something that has been missing from innovation in age-tech to date, and that is because so many businesses were geared towards selling into and satisfying health insurance companies or enterprise customers, not the end user.
NG: Where do you see the opportunities for wellness products and services for older adults?
AL: There is an explosion of wellness products and services for other demographics and generations, but they don't speak to older adults. I think there's a complete mirror world of all those businesses—whether it’s beauty, sleep, mental health, or fitness—to launch new products for later life. We've invested in a few.
One of our most recent investments is a business called Total Life—a mental health platform for older adults where they can easily find mental health professionals, social workers, and therapists that are paid for by Medicare. There is access to free mental health services for up to two sessions a week. Depression, anxiety, and social isolation are real health issues for older adults and have only been exacerbated by COVID.
In terms of fitness, we're invested in a fall prevention business called Age Bold. Falls are the number one cause of hospitalizations for seniors—it is the beginning of a cycle of hospitalization and health issues. Age Bold makes fitness fun and social. They're rolling out additional programming around arthritis and cognitive decline.
NG: Tell us something personal about yourself?
AL: I am very close to my family. In fact, my paternal grandmother played a very active role in my life and ambition. She was such a model of aging in terms of her independence, purpose and and social contribution. And now my parents are also involved in Primetime – my mother has been a market researcher who tests every available product and service that pitches Primetime, and my father was an entrepreneur and always provides management insights. I take the role of investing in age-tech very personally – and it is a family business.