Elder-care challenges prompt tech executives to create startups, apps

Stephanie Tilenius' company launched Vida, a mobile app that lets patients consult with a team of professionals, including doctors, nurses and nutritionists, from their smartphone.

SAN FRANCISCO - For years, Google Inc's commerce chief, Stephanie Tilenius, held a demanding job and helped oversee the medical care of her parents, an experience that led her to leave the Internet search giant in 2012 and start a company to help patients combat chronic disease.

Earlier this year, Tilenius' company launched Vida, a mobile app that lets patients consult with a team of professionals, including doctors, nurses and nutritionists, from their smartphone. The programme costs $15 (£9.64) a week and includes reminders to take medication. Caregivers and family members can request access to the app to keep up to date with a patient's progress.

Tilenius said her father, who eventually died from heart disease, could not afford regular medical consultations that could have helped him lose weight and manage stress.

"There was a total lack of resources on my parents' side," Tilenius said in an interview.

A growing number of high-level Silicon Valley executives from the "sandwich generation" - those who are simultaneously caring for children and parents - have left their jobs to launch mobile and digital health startups. In interviews with Reuters, many say they have been prompted by their experience of helping ageing parents with one or more chronic conditions, and the discovery of how the US healthcare system fails to serve them.

Some say they are finding both customers and partners in the large technology employers where they once worked.

INFLUX OF SILICON VALLEY EXECS

After a similar experience caring for an ailing parent, fellow Google employee Munjal Shah left the company in October 2011 to develop an app called Hi.Q, which aims to improve people's health knowledge. Groupon Inc's former product development chief, Suneel Gupta, quit his job in December 2012 to start a nutrition app called Rise and support people like his parents, who struggled with diabetes, cancer and obesity.

Caring.com, a community forum and information provider for caregivers, was started by Andy Cohen, who said he was inspired to leave his job as a vice president at SuccessFactors after his parents fell ill. SuccessFactors, which makes talent management software, was acquired by SAP SE in 2011.

The infusion of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs into healthcare is already making an impact by advancing the "triple aim of better care at lower cost, with better service," said Aneesh Chopra, the former chief technology officer for the United States and now the co-founder of a startup called Hunch Analytics.

In the past, it had been tough to recruit talent from the largest tech companies to tackle healthcare issues, said Missy Krasner, managing director for health and life sciences for Box, a cloud computing company.

"The view is that health is very insular and regulated," said Krasner, who previously worked at Google Health.

The division aimed to store personal health records but shut down in 2012 after it failed to gain much traction.

Since 2012, Google has pushed more deeply into health and ageing with wearable tracking devices. It backs a biotech initiative called Calico to research and potentially combat diseases the afflict the elderly, in partnership with drugmaker AbbVie Inc. Apple Inc has also announced plans to move into healthcare, with an initial focus on fitness and wellness.

EXTENDING BENEFITS

For engineers and entrepreneurs looking for a new market to serve, caring for an ageing parent can open their eyes to the dysfunction in healthcare, said Bryan Roberts, a health-technology-focused partner at Venrock.

Interest in backing such projects has grown. In June, funding for digital health companies had reached a record $2.3 billion, surpassing the previous total of $1.9 billion for 2013, according to venture firm Rock Health.

Tech companies are also exploring ways to offer their robust health benefits to employees' extended families, including parents, as a retention tool in a competitive market for hiring.

Twitter Inc said it let employees add one additional person to their health plan - typically a parent - in 2014. For the coming year, Twitter will cover family, dependents and domestic partners, a spokesman said. Those who extended benefits to parents in 2014 would be grandfathered in from the previous policy.

Two sources familiar with companies' HR and benefits plans, who asked to remain anonymous, said Facebook Inc's benefits team is also exploring extending health perks to employees' parents to include more virtual medical services than what is available on the government's Medicare programme for the elderly.

Facebook said it provides benefits for employees at all life stages.

The newest startups, including Vida, are gleaning business and talent from the companies they left. Tilenius said large employers are interested in offering her app to employees and their parents.

Digital health startup Grand Rounds Health connects patients with medical second opinions. Chief Executive Officer Owen Tripp, a serial tech entrepreneur, cites unexpected demand from benefits managers at tech companies for the service, which can be extended to employees' parents.

Grand Rounds and Vida declined to name specific customers as the deals are still in the works.

"Employees need ways to stay in the loop about their parents' care," said Tripp. "For employers, it's often about keeping people in the job for longer."

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