The Aging2.0 OPTIMIZE conference brings together 1000+ senior care executives, tech companies, investors and entrepreneurs from around the globe. This not-to-be-missed event October 11-14 in San Francisco will feature bold keynotes, unparalleled networking opportunities, valuable market insights and a one-of-a-kind Experience Zone—an expansive, multi-sensory showcase of the most innovative technology-driven solutions across the themes of Independence, Care, Mind and Mobility.
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Thomas Wellner is President and CEO of Revera, a leading owner, operator and investor in the senior living sector. Since joining Revera in early 2014, Mr. Wellner has led the organization through transformational change, developing the company’s strategic direction to grow, innovate and lead in the sector. Tom will be speaking at the Aging2.0 OPTIMIZE conference this fall.
From improving the lives of residents to making staff more efficient, we sat down with Tom to learn about some of the recent highlights in senior care technology for one of the world’s most influential senior care providers and where he sees innovation as playing a role both today, and 20 years down the road.
Can you talk to me a little bit about your involvement in the Aging2.0 Optimize Conference and some of the thoughts you have leading up to the event this year?
For Revera, we have been very supportive and engaged with Aging2.0 since the beginning. I remember shortly after I joined Revera about two and a half years ago, I went down to the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, which I had been going to for many years, and that’s where I first met [Aging2.0 Co-founder] Steven Johnston and [Co-founder] Katie Fike and [Partner] Arnie Whitman. Immediately following that, Revera became involved as one of the founding sponsors. It fit very much with the vision I had for Revera around both leadership in the sector and also innovation in the sector. So Aging2.0 checked all of the “boxes,” so to speak, and for us it’s been a very, very helpful partnership to have on many levels.
How has that relationship grown and what has Revera gained from the partnership with Aging2.0 from a beta test or a trial standpoint with various companies and technologies that are showcased as part of their program?
We have done a number of joint [initiatives]. We have introduced Katie and Steven and Arnie to a number of innovators up here in Toronto, where there’s a very strong set of innovative companies. We’ve had the same benefits in coming down to some of the incubators in and around the Bay Area. Then internally at Revera, our Senior Vice President of Innovation and her team screen these innovations; we have screened about 130 in the past 12 to 13 months since we’ve been doing this process. Basically, we focus on anything that will be directly impacting residents that are in our communities or their families or the support teams that are trying to care for the residents. That’s the primary filter.
Then we look at how far along the innovation is. We really don’t want very early early stage, so we’ve filtered out a lot of the innovations at that early stage. We’re ideally looking for innovators that have clients and or are scalable. For Revera, we support and care for about 54,000 seniors across Canada through Sunrise (our ownership position in Sunrise in the United States) and then we have investments in the UK [where] directly and indirectly we touch 50,000. So we look at that as reach. What we’re looking for is ease of scalability across our network of 500 communities that we directly own or indirectly own. That’s a big part of our screening process. We rely on Aging2.0 to help us with that, and then the other piece is Aging2.0’s existing accelerator ventures fund. That’s something we’re very keen on as a partner and also as an investor in some of these businesses. Those are the biggest areas we’ve found useful with Aging2.0 thus far.
It sounds like you have a very deep relationship with Katie and Steven.
The other thing I’ve participated in is Aging2.0’s future sessions all around the world. I actually participated in a good part of one that was done in Washington, D.C. at AARP. I found it to be very interesting looking out 10 to 20 years on global trends that affect seniors, and I think that part of the relationship has been very good.
I noted in Steven’s recommended summer reading a book called “No Ordinary Disruption.” I took the time to add that to my stack of summer reading and I absolutely found it to be a very helpful read orientated around trends of urbanization, innovation and technology. It highlighted the impact of the aging demographic which is in direct relation to what we’re all trying to predict and grapple with. Around capital flows and people flows, I also found it an extremely interesting read. That is another benefit I find from our relationship with Aging2.0; these future orientation [meetings] and thinking about the needs and wants of the millennials, the baby boomers and all of the cohorts in the market which are different from who we’re serving today.
There are so many ways to go with technology and the impact it’s going to have now and in the next 20 to 30 years. Two questions: One, do you find a particular technology having a greater effect in the short term whether that’s back office or operational? And two: What is a technology that’s at top of mind that’s really going to impact your organization 5 to 10 years down the road?
One of the big things we’re seeing as a benefit is around cultural and front line engagement. A couple of examples orientated around culinary service: one that stemmed from a simple suggestion from some of our front line team around food molds. So often you have to puree foods to provide for a resident who’s on a particular meal preparation care plan. As opposed to just producing everything like meat balls every day, we had the simple idea where if the food was fish, it was in the shape of a fish, if it was meat it was in the shape of meat, if it was chicken it was in the shape of a chicken. It seems simple but it’s an innovative way to do something interesting for residents.
The other food prep innovation that we’ve been starting to roll out more broadly is a tablet app which allows residents to see meal choices [and] pre-order, and basically allows the staff to know which orders are coming in at any time of the day. With it, we get the right food to the right resident at the right time in a much more efficient way, so there are benefits for the residents, [and] the service staff loves this because they can plan how they’re going to deliver and make sure the soup is hot and gets there on time.
If I look a number of years out, mid-term, I’d say the other area we find biggest is falls prevention, or serious adverse events. We’ve been piloting a technology called Walking Help which has a gait sensor; a change in gait can potentially predict a risk of fall. That’s a very simple way to help predict falls and work to potentially prevent and reduce serious adverse events that come from falls. That’s a medium-term focus for us.
I’d say longer-term the technologies that I’m very excited about come more in the robotics bucket. There are many, many repeatable tasks that our frontline staff have to do. For us, anything we can do to take repeatable tasks and make it more of a checklist by leveraging robotics will allow us to have our staff doing more of the intimate, emotionally connected things that residents and families want. I could go on… there are a lot of immediate opportunities in music that we’re doing which helps our programming and various integrated wellness programs. There are many things, but those are the three [major ones].
It sounds like you guys have a lot going on in your organization which has to be exciting for you at the CEO level. Where do you see some of the innovation coming from on a global perspective? With a footprint in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., in your travels are you seeing interesting things from the international aspect of senior living versus traditional North America?
I see a number of innovations coming from Asia. For example we have PARO, the therapeutic robotic seals that we’ve used and found very effective in our reminiscence suites especially and our more long-term care business here in Canada. There are a number of Korean companies that have interesting technologies. There are a number of interesting technologies we’ve found through the Israeli connection—quite an interesting set of things. Some around robotics, some around communications with families, and so we’re exploring a number of those areas.
Again, it’s through networks like Aging2.0 and here in Toronto we’ll often come across technologies from all over the place that we find very interesting. I would say generally North America still has a ways to go to catch up to some of these other countries. New Zealand, as an example, is a very well developed retirement [industry] and it surprisingly has a number of innovative ways that communities are designed, and care is given. The Netherlands has been an interesting spot for different care models. The issue with the Netherlands is trying to transport that back to America; a lot of that model tends to be publicly funded so as we look at the economics of some of the things that are there, the challenge is how do you make them economical and how do you actually make them business capable?
One last question for you. One of the big components of the Aging2.0 Optimize Conference is the competition amongst the various global entries from technologies around the world. Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for some of these participants that are looking to compete and garner attention and possibly to work with organizations like yours?
I think the biggest thing is piloting. The successful groups we’ve worked with that we’ve been really impressed by have not approached pilots in an academic or scientific way where you have a rigid protocol and can stick to a particular thing. The successful pilots are ones that really deeply understand the space and spend time within either a retirement community or long-term care setting and live and breathe and understand the needs and wants of the residents and the needs and wants of the family and the needs and wants of the staff—and are able to adjust their technology through the piloting process. If the innovator is too rigid through that process they will miss out and we will probably not move them forward.
Thomas Wellner is President and CEO of Revera, a leading owner, operator and investor in the senior living sector. Since joining Revera in early 2014, Mr. Wellner has led the organization through transformational change, developing the company’s strategic direction to grow, innovate and lead in the sector. He has worked with a number of strategic partners in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. to grow Revera’s portfolio to more than 500 properties internationally. Mr. Wellner has extensive global experience in biotech, pharmaceuticals and health care services, previously leading a number of organizations including LifeLabs, CML HealthCare and Therapure Biopharma. He began his career at Eli Lilly where he held a variety of global operational and leadership roles. Mr. Wellner holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences from Queen’s University and has completed the ICD Directors Education Program at Rotman School of Management as well as executive education through Harvard Business School. He sits on the Boards of a number of public and private companies.
Interview by George Yedinak