• Nancy Griffin

Rick Robinson & Sasha Spellman with AARP Innovation Labs Talk about the Age-Tech Revolution

The AgeTech Collaborative™ by AARP® brings leading startups, investors, industry leaders and testbeds together to drive smart solutions for older adults.



Nancy Griffin talks with the executives from AARP Innovation Labs who are driving forces behind The Collaborative: Rick Robinson, VP of Product Development, and Sasha Spellman, Startup Collaboration Director. Their passion and purpose for leveraging technology to improve the lives of older adults is infectious!


Nancy: Rick, why don’t you start by telling us about your background.


Rick: My background is a mix of content, media, and products. I came up through some startups and then America Online (AOL) for 10 years, and for the last 10 years at a number of large companies like Sprint, National Geographic, and Politico, as well as a couple of startups, including my own called Urgent.ly, doing a lot of product innovation and content development.


I found myself at the AARP Innovation Labs a few years ago, where we focus on working with startups to help them develop new products. It's a confluence of all that I've done in the past put to work at The Innovation Labs.


Nancy: Sasha, what about you?


Sasha: My whole career has been centered around helping support startups and finding ways for them to succeed. Before I joined the AARP team, I was at the Consumer Technology Association, where I spent over nine years helping build the startup program at the CES conference, which is called Eureka Park. The idea behind Eureka Park was to give early-stage startups a platform to launch at the CES.


After working with more than 1,000 companies, I realized that I could help companies in a deeper way in my role working with startups at AARP Innovation Labs. I was inspired by AARP’s mission to support solutions that empower people to choose how they live as they age, and excited about the vision of creating a home for the agetech ecosystem, which really didn't exist at that time.


Nancy: Tell us a little bit about the why behind the AgeTech Collaborative and why AARP is the right organization to take this on.


Rick: AARP Innovation Labs looked out over the landscape at the products and services available to both 50-plus and those supporting the 50-plus and we didn't like what we were seeing. Although there are great solutions targeted at this segment, we noticed many were either speaking down to the audience or not hitting the mark because they did not have a forward-thinking approach.


We built some of our own products early on, and then realized that it was more scalable to work with startups to accelerate their solutions. So we started putting a lot of effort into finding and accelerating startups.


The AgeTech Collaborative is the end point for a lot of the work that we do. The goal is to get as many great solutions out into the market as possible by bringing people together to help one another be successful. We bring everybody in the ecosystem under one roof, that includes not only the startups that we have brought into our portfolio, but also investors and industry leaders, test beds and service providers.


The age-tech space is ours to own. AARP is moving into a more assertive position as opposed to just providing information and great research. We're actively pulling people together to make a significant impact in this space and that's the thrust behind The Collaborative.


Nancy: Sasha, can you tell us about how you define age-tech and what are the different categories of the ecosystem?


Sasha: Sure, we look at age-tech as the growing category of technology solutions that are designed to meet the needs of the 50-plus audience and the 8.30 trillion-dollar market that it represents. We look at both B2B and B2C products, services, and experiences that are going to contribute to longer healthier and happier life spans and align with AARP's overarching enterprise strategy.


Technology solutions fall within three buckets—health, wealth, and self. Under health is obviously health care, under wealth solutions for savings and planning and helping prepare for retirement. Self includes technologies for combating social isolation and helping provide fun and fulfillment to people's lives.


There are five categories in the age-tech ecosystem that we're focusing on within The Collaborative: Industry leaders, which are larger corporations that are interesting in discovering new innovative solutions, test beds—entities that are willing to provide a pilot or a testing environment for startups, that allow those companies to validate their solutions, the investment community, which are venture capitalists that are able to offer mentorship and ultimately access to funding, business services companies that offer discounted product or service for an early stage startup. And of course, startups, which are companies that have successfully completed the accelerator program with our portfolio management team in the AARP Innovation Labs.


The platform has three main functions for the five stakeholder groups. We discover innovative agetech solutions, connect them with the broader agetech community, and help everyone grow their impact as a leader in this space.


Nancy: Tell us a little bit about the Grand Pitch Finale winner Kinoo.


Rick: Kinoo is an interesting one. Their solution is focused on finding ways to help families connect virtually and to make it easier for relationships between grandparents and grandchildren to bond. They essentially have a video chat platform that uses AI and augmented reality to connect grandparents and grandchildren. Their founder Jim Marggraff has a really cool background. He was the creator of the LeapPad Learning System and applied many of the same techniques to make learning interactive and fun through this Kinoo solution.


We found Kinoo through a pitch competition called the Better Aging Through Technology Challenge, which was focused on how products can help improve people's quality of life as they age. They won that competition which then allowed them to be a part of our accelerator program and qualify them for our annual flagship event the Grand Pitch Finale, where all the winners of our past pitch competitions throughout the year compete.


Nancy: Rick, how do you determine the best and the brightest startups?


Rick: We run themed pitch competitions to select the companies we think have potential and invite them into our 8-week accelerator program. Pre Covid, we ran pitch competitions all around the country, and post Covid they are all virtual.


Regarding criteria, first we look for sharp founders, particularly those who have a strong idea attached to a personal issue that they have faced. Also, a willingness to be flexible in terms of market fit with the initial direction. Are they willing to pivot a bit? Flexible, but also holding tight to their original vision. We want to be able to put out the best and brightest because we're bringing some heavy hitters to look at these companies. It's important for us to identify and help along the best companies with the most impactful solutions.


A lot of companies are recommended to us through our network—that's one benefit of having the AARP brand behind us. There is no shortage of startups applying, so it’s a matter of filtering through and making difficult choices. Paring down is the most difficult process.


Nancy, Sasha, please tell us about your partnerships and the testbed community.


Sasha: We currently have six test beds that are signed up that are interested in finding solutions to pilot within their own communities. One of our test beds is Army Distaff Foundation, a not-for-profit senior care community for 50-plus veterans out of the Washington DC area. ADF has worked with a number of our startups.


We do have a growing list of corporate entities that are joining the collaborative, including the National Association of Realtors, which are focused on housing related technologies, Walgreens, which has a focus on health care. And then an interesting one is Hyundai CRADLE (Center for Robotic-Augmented Design in Living Experiences) which has an interest in mobility and accessibility-related technologies and how that can help some of their efforts in terms of frameworks for automotive initiatives.


Nancy: What is the process for startups wanting to apply to the accelerator?


Rick: Startups interesting in applying should visit AARPInnovationLabs.org. They can also sign up for our newsletter to be alerted to our upcoming pitch events. The starting point is to identify what pitch competition they might want to sign up for and then they sign up for it. If selected, they will pitch virtually in front of us and the judges. You don't have to win to be invited into our accelerator program—you just need to show well. If it is a company we can help and they want to work with us, we invite them into the next quarterly cohort. The companies we generally bring into our accelerator are early stage up to series A.


Nancy: I’d like to finish with asking what gets you both excited these days, and if you would share something personal about yourself.


Rick: What's exciting to me is that over the past nine months we carved out a platform and community that really got behind the age-tech space and after talking to all these different entities and seeing the light bulb go off that this is an 8 trillion dollar economy with a deficit of great services. The opportunity is enormous to help people but also to put some great products out there that can drive significant revenue. All of that, in a short period of time, has been very gratifying to see it come together, but also frankly find a lot of new believers.


On a personal note: The magazine I edited in the early 1990s about the Internet (BBC Magazine) is now in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian.


Nancy: Sasha. What about you?


Sasha: My answer is going to be somewhat similar to Rick's, but what's most exciting to me is seeing The AgeTech Collaborative come to life. When I was at Consumer Technology Association, I would make sure to be at the show open when the attendees would flood the show floor to see all the startups in Eureka Park. I would get this feeling of gratitude and pride that I was able to help make those connections. I’m not saying we're in the home stretch quite yet with The Collaborative, but I'm starting to get similar feelings. There are powerful connections being made between our agetech startups and some of these larger industry leaders and investors we're signing onto the platform.


Something personal, I’m an avid dog-lover who has a two-year-old mixed breed rescue named Gatsby.


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