SINGAPORE (Dec 17): About two years ago, Christel Goh, 27, felt that her grandmother could be showing the early warning signs of dementia. Her grandfather had suffered from dementia, and she knew how tough managing the condition could be. Aware that mental stimulation can help stave off the disease, Goh hunted around for games that she could play with her grandmother. But everything she found was either too childish or Western-centric, she recalls.

Goh, who was working full-time in public relations, created her own card game instead. She designed a set of 22 cards illustrated with quintessentially local items, such as ice kacang and Axe Oil. These can be played like a game of Snap, or a memory game. Goh shared a soft copy of the cards on Facebook. At her friends’ urging, she realised this could be a product for sale. She turned this into a business idea and started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, which raised over US$3,000 ($4,112).

The personal project has since evolved into her business called Play Hua Hee, which creates card games, colouring puzzles and activity packs for senior citizens and caregivers. Hua Hee means “happy” in Hokkien, a dialect spoken among many Chinese elderly. Goh switched to a parttime role at work, so that she could concentrate on making Play Hua Hee a “sustainable social enterprise”. In just a year, her clients have included the Agency for Integrated Care, the National University Hospital and the People’s Association.

A business such as Play Hua Hee does not come with the shiny technology that characterises many start-ups. Unlike many businesses focused on the elderly, it does not cater primarily to medical needs. Instead, it tackles an oft-overlooked area: the need for stimulating, enjoyable activities. “I feel that the social aspect of caregiving [for the elderly] in Singapore is very charity-based. A lot of people expect volunteers to come in and conduct activities,” Goh notes.

But the overlooked needs of the elderly is a gap that Singapore entrepreneurs can fill. And this is the reality that Modern Aging Singapore wants entrepreneurs to wake up to. The platform was started in 2015 by healthcare think tank ACCESS Health International (AHI) and NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore. Play Hua Hee was one of eight finalists in this year’s edition of the Modern Aging accelerator programme. The winners for this year are Timeliss, a platform for end-of-life planning; An, a fintech platform to help seniors monetise their property; and Eden, which is looking to create custom-made dentures.

Compared with past editions of the accelerator, this year’s participants were more focused on the holistic needs of the elderly, says Fredrik Knoeff, country director for Singapore at AHI. “It’s important not to see this just in terms of social impact,” he adds. “Because then you’d treat the elderly as being vulnerable — that’s what we want to stay away from... or you’d already start stereotyping them.”

Beyond Affordable Excellence model

Modern Aging was launched in Singapore in 2015, when AHI saw an opportunity for innovation in the city state’s ageing population. Two years earlier, William Haseltine, chair and president of AHI, had written a book on the Singapore healthcare system called Affordable Excellence. The book explored how the country has succeeded in providing high-quality, low-cost healthcare. “[But] when [Haseltine] was studying Singapore, he also found that the healthcare system at the time was really focusing on acute healthcare. It was not so much preparing for an ageing population,” Knoeff says.

Singapore has since moved away from the hospital-centric model towards a more “connected, distributed” network of healthcare providers. “As soon as you can get the patients outside of the hospital, things become much cheaper and you can basically unclog the system,” Knoeff notes. But building more healthcare facilities fulfils only one aspect of healthcare. Missing in this equation are also businesses that cater to seniors more comprehensively — not just for medical needs, but also in overlooked areas such as fitness, mental well-being and entertainment.

Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise, notes that Modern Aging was started at a time when there was a “dearth of accelerators”, especially those focused on senior consumers. “The partnership with AHI brings together our joint expertise in creating a curriculum to help start-ups validate their solutions, seek healthcare professionals’ mentorship of teams, and organising community talks and workshops to inspire start-ups to take on challenges that serve the needs of ageing populations around the world,” she says.

With its accelerator, Modern Aging hopes to push more entrepreneurs towards innovating for the elderly. The programme accepts early-stage start-ups — even those with just an idea — and helps them conceptualise it into a business, over the course of 12 weeks. It ends with a finale, where the start-ups pitch their idea, and two to three winners are selected. The winners receive $25,000 to $50,000 each in seed funding.

NUS Enterprise has its Lean Launch- Pad Singapore programme, in which selected teams could test and validate their innovations. “The programme helps participants understand the critical success factors for commercialisation through an evidence- based validation process,” Chan says. “Our reach and marketing efforts also help create awareness for the start-ups and solutions while our networks and BLOCK71 locations in Indonesia, China and the US help provide start-ups with access to local communities to expand their business into these markets. For start-ups that are ready to pitch for funding, we help make connections with the VCs [venture capitalists] locally and overseas.”

Know thy customer

Many of the start-ups that have graduated from Modern Aging focus on health and well-being. Chan of NUS highlights Kinexcs as one success story. The medtech start-up builds monitoring solutions to help with rehabilitation for seniors who have undergone knee surgery. It has received funding of more than $1.5 million, first from Modern Aging and subsequently from investors such as VC firm SOSV Ventures and SGInno vate, the government-owned deeptech firm.

More recently, however, there has been a greater diversity in business ideas. Among this year’s finalists, online platforms have emerged as a prominent theme. For instance, 8sages is looking to build a B2C e-commerce site dedicated to serving seniors. Then there is Timeliss, which serves as a one-stop online portal for end-of-life planning — related to finances, legal matters, and even grieving and loss. Meanwhile, RuBaRu is looking to create an app for seniors to teach others disappearing heritage languages.

“While the business model for implementation of technology solutions is a challenge for a small market like Singapore, it provides an interesting testbed for such technologies. For most solutions, they need to scale to other countries and understand the local context and needs. Technologies such as IoT [Internet of Things] and AI [artificial intelligence] are advancing fast and need to keep up with the pace of converting their prototypes to commercialisation quickly. On the plus side, the market has tremendous potential,” says Chan.

At the same time, Modern Aging remains open to non-tech related ideas such as Play Hua Hee. The focus should not be on how attractive the technology may seem, but whether it actually solves a problem, emphasises Jananie Audimulam, program manager at AHI. “We ourselves are a bit tired of people telling us that they have the next best app that is going to save the world. We are quite happy to see a card game [like Play Hua Hee] that you can hold in your hand,” she says.

Ultimately, when innovating for the senior segment, the key mantra of marketing still applies: Know your customer well. While Modern Aging can connect start-ups to the ecosystem, the entrepreneurs themselves have to make an effort to speak to their target customers. Knoeff recalls how some individuals once ran an idea by him for an inflatable bed catering to the elderly living in small apartments. They failed to consider, however, that the bed would be too low and not feasible for those with weak knees. “Don’t just fix something from your lab,” he says. “Go out and talk to the seniors.” 

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 861, week of Dec 17) which is on sale now. Subscribe here