DC Startup Week Panel Discussion: AgeTech and the Power of Ecosystems

By Mark Ogilbee posted 10-01-2022 11:37 AM

Sasha Spellman hosts panelists Sathya Elumalai, Nick Patel and Saroj Regmi

DC Startup Week (DCSW) is a robust and growing startup community based in the Washington, D.C., area. Every year, DCSW hosts an event also called DC Startup Week, which aims to be the region’s premier education and training conference “for founders, by founders.” 

At this year’s DC Startup Week, Sasha Spellman, AARP Innovation Labs’ director of startup collaboration, hosted a panel called “AgeTech and the Power of Ecosystems” to discuss how building a technology ecosystem centered around the longevity economy can unlock the power of partners, investors, startups and business services. 

Panelists included representatives from three AgeTech Collaborative™ participants: Nick Patel of testbed ThriveWell Tech; Saroj Regmi of funder National Institute on Aging (NIA); and Sathya Elumalai of startup Aidar Health.  

Here are some highlights of the panelists' reflections on how testbeds, startups and investors can work together to advance initiatives in the AgeTech space.


Getting Access to Great Ideas and Top Talent 

A key topic the panelists discussed was the importance of having access to great ideas and nurturing top talent. 

Elumalai shared a startup founder’s perspective by emphasizing that having access to novel ideas helps accelerate growth. In the case of Aidar, working with the AgeTech Collaborative™ exposed the company to ideas that gave them insights into their business model and helped them design their product to meet users’ actual needs. Offering a testbed’s point of view, Patel outlined the critical importance of uncovering fresh, innovative solutions to common problems. 

From the point of view of an investor, Regmi discussed the NIA’s commitment to fostering fresh ideas and new talent via a variety of programs, including REDI, which offers training and scholarships for scientist engineers who work in the aging space. NIA also offers grants, such as SBIR grants, for early-career entrepreneurs. Regmi also described initiatives the NIA has in place to foster diversity in the AgeTech space, and the power that AgeTech startups, testbeds and investors can have when working together to form an ecosystem. 


Connecting with Customers 

Another topic the panel discussed was the value of connecting with customers — for revenue, of course, but just as importantly for testing ideas and validating solutions in the real world. As part of a testbed organization, Patel emphasized the importance of including testbed operations staff themselves as part of proof-of-concept initiatives. 

Elumalai noted that real-world testing was particularly important when Aidar was validating its medical-grade flagship device: “The ultimate purpose of the regulations concerning medical device validation is to ensure that manufacturers create products that are safe — because even the smallest malfunction can be life-threatening. So at Aidar, we started user testing and validation from Day One; the testing and validation were well worth the time and resources.” 

Elumalai also pointed out that user testing and validation were critical for securing venture capital funding and commercial business contracts, and, eventually, for market adoption.  


Securing Capital in Challenging Times 

Funding is critical to any startup’s survival. With the recent slowdown in VC funding, the panelists offered tips to entrepreneurs for weathering the current environment. 

Patel noted how he encourages startups to focus on their return on investment, along with identifying friction points and finding solutions to reduce them.  

Elumalai echoed those points, encouraging founders to achieve a laser focus in order to do more with fewer resources, and to use the current environment as an opportunity to invest in better processes, eliminate wasteful spending, and double down on pleasing their customers. He also noted that NIH and NSF federal funding programs are available, and encouraged founders to seek out pitch competitions, accelerators and incubators that offer much-needed short-term capital and traction to companies. 

Regmi noted how the NIA has an annual budget of $143 million to fund innovation and research for startups in the aging and Alzheimer’s space. He also highlighted that SBIR grants are available to innovators in various stages of development, from early prototype to commercialization, and that these are government-funded programs — they are not loans that need to be repaid. 


To learn more about DC Startup Week and its annual event, check out their website here.