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In May 2015, Trish Barbato stepped into a newly created role to drive tech innovation at senior living owner, operator and investor Revera—and she was scared.
“When I got in, I was terrified, might be a fair thing to say,” she told Senior Housing News.
Her fear came from the fact that, although she was a seasoned senior housing and care executive, she had little experience in the technology and innovation sphere. Now, with a host of accomplishments under Barbato’s belt, Revera has become a leader in this area.
She recently spoke with SHN about how she led the creation of an innovation program from scratch, how Revera changed its own culture by engaging workers on tech initiatives, and how it finds and invests in promising startups with scaleable solutions.
What led to the creation of your current role, senior vice president of innovation and strategic partnerships, back in 2015?
This was a new role created by our CEO [Thomas Wellner]. I would say it’s because he’s very pumped about innovation and thinks the whole sector needs it so desperately. He came from a pharma background, where research and innovation were embedded in core values and everyday workings. It was a fresh view coming into senior housing and not seeing anything in that arena, as far as he was concerned. Everything was too slow, too old … so he created this role.
What was your job description?
I’m laughing because I probably have never felt so ill-prepared and not fit for a role as when this one was created. I had no team, no job description, and Tom was correct, there was little going on in senior housing with innovation.
So what did you do?
I used LinkedIn and reached out to loads of people I knew or other people knew, or I cold-called them. I read a lot. There was a great article in Harvard Business Review [about] how to create an innovation hub in 90 days, and I literally used that article and implemented it. So I would say in a very short period of time, we had a pretty good framework.
What did that framework look like?
It included four pillars. One was around strategic partnerships. We became a lead partner with Aging2.0. We attached ourselves to other [innovation groups].
Another thing is that we organized an internal innovation challenge. That was a huge success and helped shift the culture. People started to go oh, wow, they’re going to listen to my idea and reward it and scale it.
And then for external innovators, we created a program to get them to come in and help pilot and possibly fund them.
The other thing that was quite a lot of fun was that I was inspired by Ideo’s chief designer who was an elder. She’s the woman who wrote a letter to Ideo, in her 80s, and said, I should work for you because I design for older people and I don’t think you’re designing enough things for older people. So I said, I need one [of these people], and talked to my CEO, and we knew right away the person we wanted. She [lives] where our head office is. She was the mayor of that city for 30 years and had just retired. She was just perfect.
We also have resident innovation ambassadors. We have one for our more acute, long-term care side, and a new one for our retirement division. They live in our residences and provide counsel and insight. They’ll tell us, I think that’s a terrible idea, or that’s a great idea.
Can you describe the internal innovation challenges?
We put out a challenge to our communities to say, what do you think we should do differently? We had kind of no idea how people would respond, but we had over 80% of communities participate. Dietitians, recreation managers, executive directors, frontline nurses. We narrowed down to a top 20 and said, do a two-minute pitch video and submit that, and we’ll have a Shark Tank-style live webinar so that people can watch the videos and they’d do a Q&A. The quality of these videos surpassed all expectations.
We picked 10 winners and moved them through a pilot stage.
What’s an example of a winning idea?
One was a digital dining app, so that the folks that are taking orders for meals have pictures of the meals, and they know all the restrictions and preferences of the residents right away. Everything is very fluid and goes to the kitchen very easily. That one’s getting scaled. Another one, which seems so simple, is under-bed sensor lighting. The site that piloted that reduced nighttime falls by 40%. We did a request for proposals for a lighting solution that can scaled.
And on the external innovation side, that’s your Innovators in Aging program?
How do you connect with those partners?
We have a portal on our website … We also definitely work closely with Aging2.0, places where entrepreneurs and innovators are gravitating toward. It tends to be a small circle, and you end up knowing about these companies and you can meet with them. We have criteria—I wouldn’t say we’re totally strict—we’re focused but we’re also opportunistic. The criteria are really around does the innovation or product going to enhance the lives of our residents, so is it directly applicable to our business, is one question that we ask. We prefer that they have figured out the revenue model. Sometimes they’ve created something great and can’t figure out who the heck is going to pay for it. So, they’re a little later than early, early startups. And we look at, is it something that is able to be scaled? Our secret sauce, what we can bring to the table, is scale. We ask fairly early, is it scaleable from a technological perspective, from a financial perspective, from a management team perspective.
What’s an example of an Innovators in Aging success?
An early one was Sensassure, which developed a sensor on the outside of a continence product that alerts staff when it needs to be changed, increasing dignity and minimizing sleep disruptions. We worked with them fairly early on in providing an pilot site and a place where residents and family members and staff were working closely on getting the prototype done. We worked with them on [connecting] them with organizations that could leverage them, and worked with them on getting some equity.
Revera itself invested?
Yes. We got equity in return for promising purchase orders in the future, once they hit milestones. It’s a unique way of investing but for many startups, it bodes well for them. It goes back to my comment on where do we help, we help with scale.
We’re now working with them on a second, deeper pilot, and they were also acquired by a large medical supply company out of Europe. That’s been a huge success story. We got some return on our investment and now they’re partnered with someone who has a distribution network. This is the ideal win-win-win, all the way around.
Speaking of ROI, how do you measure the success of these pilots?
We try our best to create the baseline early, and create pre and post surveys. Before we start, we’ll survey staff, residents, family members as applicable, and then ask the same questions after. For example, we’re scaling a simple use of food moulds for some people who need alternative diets, a minced diet or something like that. It might be having a baseline of how much people arresting, satisfaction with their meal. For the dining app, an outcome would be reduction in errors such as not serving the right food to the right resident. And we try to go through ROI as well, to find out where there’s a financial benefit and can we link it to a particular project. So, we look for quality, satisfaction and financial metrics.
How do you compare where senior living innovation is today versus when you started in your position in 2015?
Even in the two years I’ve been in this role, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people interested in this demographic. Companies like Gillette are moving quickly to get a piece of the senior demographic. Other companies are saying, hey, this is a market opportunity, how do I get in on that? That forces us to be better and the sector to get better. Consumers see [a product like Gillette’s new razor] and they say, I want my care worker to use that razor on my dad. Consumers are aware of tech, they know what’s out there, and they continue to put pressure on us to be more with it. So, it’s moving along quickly. Does it need to move faster? Absolutely.
Do events like Aging2.0 Optimize help move it along faster, and also show how far the industry has come in a short time?
There are a lot of people at Optimize now who have my job, or it’s part of their role. To speak to people thinking about the same things, facing the same challenges, getting their advice, the entire networking component is hugely valuable. You come back recharged. It’s always been hugely worthwhile because we’re able in a very short short period of time to meet face to face with the innovators who are emerging. We can speak with them directly and get a feel for where they’re at and what’s going on. We’re very excited to be going to Optimize.
Trish Barbato provides strategic leadership for Revera in the area of innovation, one of the company’s core strategic priorities, and oversees the Information Technology function. She has deep experience in private, public and non-profit sectors of the health system, and served as Senior Vice President of Revera Home Health from 2010 to 2015. Before joining Revera in 2010, Ms. Barbato was President and CEO of COTA Health (mental health and rehabilitation services). She was Vice President, Corporate Services and Chief Financial Officer of Providence Healthcare, and Managing Director of Bayshore Healthcare. Ms. Barbato defines success as exceeding resident expectations, keeping employees deeply engaged and being open to new ideas. She’s a Chartered Professional Accountant Fellow, holds an Economics degree from the University of Waterloo and a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee award recipient.
Interview by Tim Mullaney