When Innovation Is Not Enough: How GreatCall Has Grown Its Market

In the 10 years since David Inns joined San Diego-based GreatCall as CEO, he has seen a proliferation of innovative healthtech startups that are targeting baby boomers who are in or nearing retirement. A lot of these digital health companies are trying to connect with senior living communities, typically at events like the annual Aging 2.0 conference held in San Francisco earlier this month.

For many healthtech startups, however, Inns said innovation is not enough.

Aging Americans and their caregivers represent a huge market. Roughly 44 million citizens are 65 or older, according to U.S. census data. They account for over 14 percent of the total U.S. population and GreatCall estimates that their caregivers spend over $500 billion a year.

But Inns said many healthtech startups falter because they lack the ability to really serve this gentrifying population and their caregivers, or they lack the resources to match the scale of the market. “Seventy-seven percent of older consumers say their No. 1 goal is to stay at home as long as possible as they age,” Inns said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

GreatCall,  a virtual network operator that provides mobile telecommunications products and services for older consumers, has grown its customer base to more than 900,000 subscribers. A key piece of GreatCall’s strategy are call centers that help elderly customers use the company’s technology. After raising more than $75 million in venture funding during its first few years, the still-private company is now generating over $250 million in annual revenue, Inns said.

“One of the problems in this tech space for older consumers is that there are a lot of startups out there,” Inns said. To break out of the crowd, he said many healthtech startups are trying to reach potential customers by striking partnership deals with healthcare providers and senior living companies. That can be challenging, though, because companies already serving elderly customers tend to be conservative, and often aren’t willing to work with startups offering innovative technologies and services.

The technology itself also can be a challenge.  ­­“A lot of our customers who are in this target demographic are not adept at downloading apps or pairing devices,” Inns said. “One thing I know for sure is that there’s [always] going to be technology that the oldest consumers are going to have trouble adopting.”

As a healthtech company for aging consumers, Inns said GreatCall has succeeded by focusing on ways it can help its customers adapt to innovation. “So many people think that mass market technology will apply to this demographic,” he said. “But the technology has to have a wrapping around it, so that older consumers want to use it.”

GreatCall CEO David Inns

David Inns

When GreatCall launched its business in 2006, the company emphasized the simplicity of its Jitterbug mobile phones, with their oversized keypad buttons, and the simplicity of its mobile phone service, with network operators trained to provide services and assistance.

“We train them to be empathetic about vision issues, to be patient, and to help them understand,” Inns said. “It’s a really, really important part of what we do.”

Over time, the company has gradually expanded its services, adding health and safety features to its Jitterbug phones, such as its 5Star mobile personal emergency response system. GreatCall connects many, if not most, of these new capabilities to its customer service call centers in Reno, NV, and Carlsbad, CA, which together employ about 700 of the company’s 1,000-plus workers.

For example, the partnership agreement with the ride-sharing service Lyft that GreatCall announced in August does not involve a mobile app. GreatCall subscribers instead order their rides by calling GreatCall’s personal operator services, which coordinates the ride directly with Lyft drivers. The fare is added to GreatCalls’ monthly bill, along with a 15 percent surcharge, Inns explained.

Today, GreatCall’s “connected health” services include health and safety apps installed on Jitterbug smart and flip phones, as well as wearable health and fitness devices that followed last year’s acquisition of Lively, a San Francisco startup. Lively created an online platform so family members and other caregivers could get and share notifications and alerts from a variety of sensors that Lively had built into pill dispensers and other everyday items.

“One of the things we’re focused on are the family caregivers,” Inns said. “If they have [an elderly relative wearing] one of our GreatCall devices, we can download the data and send it to the caregivers.” GreatCalls’s wearable technology includes sensors that can detect if the user has fallen. The device also can send location alerts that notify caregivers when mom has arrived someplace—a doctor’s office, for example—and when she has returned home.

“Getting mom a smartphone is not enough,” Inns explained. “Getting her a wearable to sync with her smartphone is not enough. Putting it together in a way that works, and providing that as a service, that’s something that we’ve gotten really good at doing.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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