The Dolphin Tank: A friendlier entrepreneur pitch competition

By | Small Business


The TV cameras weren’t rolling.

And the waters weren’t swirling with blood.

But the seven competitors in “The Dolphin Tank” each hoped to survive in the cutthroat world of new business startups. The difference was the setting.

The popular reality TV show, ABC’s “The Shark Tank,” offers entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their product ideas to venture capitalists, investors known as “sharks” willing to back the ideas with their own money.

“The Dolphin Tank” was a friendlier setting in which four judges—a venture capitalist, academic, small business incubator organization and gerontologist—-heard three-minute “pitches” from entrepreneurs marketing their healthcare-related products or services to the fast-growing seniors population. In addition to questions, advice and suggestions from judges, audience members at the recent annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in Orlando watched the presentations and questioned presenters. 

Meeting the needs of a growing senior population

The small businesses offered a primer on how to deliver products or services to meet the growing needs of seniors. Ten thousand Americans turn 65 every day. If it were a country, the U.S. seniors market would comprise the world’s eighth largest economy, said “Dolphin Tank” Judge David Lindeman, director of the Center for Technology and Aging at the University of California Berkeley. 

Besides Lindeman, judges included Kirstie Chadwick, the president and CEO of The National Business Incubation Association; Charlene Quinn, associate professor of Gerontology at the University of Maryland, and Alex Guastella, managing partner of Wet Paint Ventures. The Dolphin Tank is a program of Springboard Enterprises, a network of innovators and investors building high-growth technology-oriented companies, with special focus on women-owned businesses.

Contestants included Carrie Nieman, M.D., an ear, nose and throat resident and a co-founder of Access HEARS of Baltimore; Darren Wendroff, founder of CareSpotter in Orlando; Joseph Hamilla, CEO of  Home for Life Design of Orlando, which provides home accessibility and technology solutions to seniors living at home; Linda Royer, president and founder of LivingSmart, also in Orlando, a website-based wellness management firm; Alexander Bartkow of Project Carbon in Boston; Rebecca Koszalinski, co-founder of Speak for Myself, a Boca Raton, Fla., firm that provides computer applications to allow hospital patients unable to speak for themselves to communicate with health providers, and Gerontologist Janet Caldwell Cover, founder of Hartford, Conn.-based TreasureVox, which allows older adults with dementia to tell their personal stories.

Rather than a confrontational reality show format of blood-thirsty competition and artificial drama, the “Dolphin Tank” judges offered sage advice and probed contestants about important aspects of their businesses’ financing, operations and marketing. Audience members, who know the seniors market well, suggested ideas, business opportunities and marketing options that the entrepreneurs genuinely seemed to appreciate.


Baby Boomers to boost market

Dr. Nieman, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said two-thirds of the nation’s 26 million older adults experiencing hearing loss will do nothing about it. Neiman said most can’t afford to spend the $3,000 to $8,000 for a hearing aid and the audiologist visits required.

“That’s around 23 million American seniors with untreated hearing loss,” she said. 

She noted that the huge potential market will grow with the aging of Baby Boomers.

But that’s not what has driven her and Access HEAR’s team.

“That money is all out of pocket, because Medicare doesn’t pay for hearing aids. So most seniors don’t buy them. I’ve seen the pain and isolation that this causes and it’s unnecessary,” she explained.

The startup offers low-tech personal sound amplifiers for around $200 that work nearly as well as the higher cost hearing aids. Trained community health workers, operating under the guidance of audiologists and ear, nose and throat specialists, identify patients and counsel them about hearing loss.

“These are low-cost, over the counter devices that blur the line between hearing aids and sound amplifiers that offer amplification and clarity similar to hearing aids. After serving and studying 30 older adults in a Baltimore senior housing project who went through our program, they reported improved quality of life, reduced hearing loss and improvements in hearing acuity,” she said.

Lindeman told Nieman that the Access HEAR “could be a game-changer in rural areas.”

Wendroff likened CareSpotter, to “an e harmony for caregivers,” which allows families seeking professional caregivers to log onto its website and employ key compatibility factors like language, ethnicity, geographic location and experience to find the best person for the job. Wendroff launched his firm when his family was seeking a caregiver for his dying mother.

 CareSpotter  matches families needing caregiving services to trained certified nurse assistants (CNAs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs),  registered nurses (RNs), home care aides (HCAs) and nurse assistants (NAs)  seeking work. Using a proprietary algorithm, families search through caregivers who have been screened and have posted their profiles on its website to find the best possible match.

“When mom was discharged from the hospital, we were given a list of caregiving agencies, but no recommendations or listing of the caregiver skills,” he remembered. “It was very frustrating.”

So he left his Virginia accounting firm to care for his mother in Florida.

“I was the caregiver and didn’t know anything about it,” he said. 

Start up events

After launching CareSpotter, he entered a Google startup weekend event and was the top vote getter. He applied to Health Box, a national healthcare startup incubator. He said the accelerator helped him understand his potential customers and find the right business model. CareSpotter has helped more than 650 families to find caregivers since 2014. The company also added a payroll service to aid families in paying their caregivers.

Contestant Bartkow’s Project Carbon, which develops games for virtual reality platforms, learned about Alzheimer’s while recovering from neurosurgery after injuries received while serving in the U.S. military.

“I wanted to keep brain active, so I signed up for class at MIT and learned that strategy games have the ability to develop the brain,” Bartkow said. “Our idea got picked up by an incubator. I saw a presentation by an Alzheimer’s researcher and it inspired me to dig deeper.”

Bartkow said his company has developed its own hybrid hardware.

“We’re just designing games that are fun to play that improve the environs for patients and their families,” he said.

Lindeman said the judges were looking for great business models and products with an understanding of their markets.

After owners made their pitches, judges peppered them with questions about funding and product development and encouraged them to refine their business plans. Audience members—-comprised of gerontologists, healthcare providers, social services professionals and others knowledgeable about the seniors market—also participated.

“There’s a big knowledge gap for healthcare startup owners serving the aging market,” Lindeman said. “Where do you turn for expertise?”

Lindeman advised startups mining the seniors market to seek advice from organizations like AARP, GSA and Aging 2.0.

“Often the key for technology startups in particular is getting connected while still in the formative stages,” he said. “There are more resources in metro areas. Those in smaller towns can always approach gerontologists at their local community colleges.”

He said the “Dolphin Tank” is intended to be useful to the participating companies.

“This market is growing so fast that now we’re starting to see venture capital funds focusing on aging. We want to offer input from experts to help these companies grow.”

This story was produced with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation.

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