The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies the world over to adapt. For a diverse group of Finnish technology businesses, it also opened doors to a market that tech entrepreneurs sometimes ignore: seniors.
Brought together by their membership in GE’s Health Innovation Village in Helsinki, the leaders of these small but growing firms noticed a paradox. COVID-19 left the elderly more isolated and vulnerable than ever, but it also pushed them and their caregivers to adopt technology they might have once been reluctant to embrace.
The leaders of Rehaboo!, Emfit and Miils were already acquainted with each other through their work at the Village, a combination business incubator and accelerator housed inside GE Healthcare headquarters here. With their primary market segments in flux because of the pandemic lockdown, the three tech firms collectively decided to pivot and develop new ways that could help seniors take care of things they were used to doing in person.
Peter Gréen, Rehaboo!’s CEO and a co-founder of the Health Innovation Village, says the spirit of the place has always involved “not really thinking about just your company, but thinking about the whole community.”
Rehaboo! grew out of a hackathon sponsored by Finland’s largest hospital system. It launched its initial product, a physical therapy video game aimed at children, in late 2019, just before the pandemic hit. The game was part of a motion-sensing kiosk that hospitals and clinics would purchase and set up in-house. Kids who might get bored and frustrated with repetitive PT regimens now could use their bodies to pilot a mining cart or surfboard while racking up points. Rehaboo! also had hopes to crack the office market, where employers had an interest in getting their workers to move around more during the workday.
But with all but essential medical care on hold and offices shut down, Gréen saw an opening for Rehaboo! to develop a new product that would appeal to seniors who had previously depended on their daily walks or meetups with friends and family to stay fit and sharp. Rehaboo!’s new video game, called GeriActive, works on a laptop or mobile device equipped with a camera, using cloud-based AI for motion sensing, with no special hardware needed. It incorporates light exercise, social interaction and cognitive challenges to counteract the effects of isolation, loneliness and lack of activity. “Our current business target audience is definitely the elderly,” says Gréen. “Both those in care homes and also the elderly living at home alone.”
Where Rehaboo! is targeting exercise, Miils is looking at nutrition. The company develops software to help users pick foods, groceries and meal plans that meet their specific nutritional requirements. The company had early success with gyms and fitness organizations, and last year started working with Lidl, one of the world’s largest grocery retailers, says chief operating officer Markus Vajanne. But it was a conversation he had a few years ago in Sweden about eldercare needs that planted a seed.
His colleagues were skeptical. Their take at the time was “Seniors are not known to use new technology or be very savvy,” says Vajanne. But Miils ended up creating a pilot program with a large Finnish healthcare organization “that serves thousands of seniors who receive home care service,” he says, and it took off. “It’s been a very, very good business for us,” Vajanne says.
Powered by artificial intelligence, Miils’ software is able to make recommendations at the point of purchase. “Seniors are recommended a better product when they shop based on their personal preferences and nutritional needs,” he says. In one instance, the company has helped lower the sodium intake of senior users by 10%. “The product is really working,” he adds. “It’s really guiding these seniors to eat food that has less salt. And this is something that we are very proud and happy with.”
One unintended consequence: Vajanne and his colleagues now get regular feedback in the form of phone calls from seniors who sometimes complain that the local grocer delivered bruised bananas.
Emfit is the outlier among the group. Founded in 1990, the company makes biosensing equipment, such as an under-mattress sleep monitor traditionally aimed at professional athletes and medical researchers. Emfit didn’t target its advanced equipment at the general elderly population until, by chance, product manager Tea Sandén interviewed a 94-year-old locally famous former dancer who had gotten her hands on a sleep monitor and was now an outspoken fan. In addition to wellness tracking, Emfit’s QS monitor now allows relatives to be alerted if, say, a senior gets up during the night but doesn’t return to bed, suggesting they may have fallen.
“The pandemic has been an interesting time for us to launch this product,” says Peppiina Räisänen, a marketing manager at Emfit. On the one hand, medical and tech conferences where Emfit might meet distributors and customers aren’t happening in person. On the other, families are desperate for ways to know that their parents and grandparents are OK.
Once they’d each had their own realization of how the pandemic had changed their businesses, joining forces just seemed natural to Sandén, Räisänen, Vajanne and Gréen.
“We know [seniors] need to move more. They need to sleep and rest better. And they also need food which is more suitable for them,” says Vajanne. He thinks the three firms can better demonstrate to big customers like local governments how technology can help improve the ways they administer services. Collaborating also means sharing lessons about how to succeed in foreign markets, like the U.S., where healthcare and senior care may be fragmented and heavily regulated.
The collaboration is loose but is already producing results in the form of shared knowledge and camaraderie. “There’s no bureaucracy in this,” says Rehaboo!’s Gréen. “We have similar customers. We are not competing with each other at all. Let’s do things together.”