By SHELAGH BRALEY
CAMBRIDGE—The holiday season isn’t merry and bright for everyone, especially for elders without family and friends to look after them.
CareAcademy founders Helen Adeosun and Madhuri Reddy want to ensure those who do care for the elderly are as well trained as possible.
“We’re educating caregivers to provide excellent care,” says Adeosun, whose upbeat, concentrated work pace puts even the speed of aging to shame. “Every day, 10,000 people turn 65 just in the U.S. It’s crazy. And of those, 90 percent of them expect to live in their homes independently. That’s only going to happen with the right resources and support.”
Caring for the elderly isn’t a sexy job. It’s painstaking work that requires empathy and efficacy, with plenty of possible pitfalls, and not many perks. But as the United States population ages exponentially—83.7 million elders in 2016, according to recent senior care industry data—it’s work that CareAcademy is known for passionately championing and professionalizing.
“We are building the teams to go into these homes, and creating this system at scale to support this community of aging adults,” Adeosun says. “We’ve got to make sure these classes are engaging. These are life-saving skills, so we have to make sure they’re taught correctly and the caregivers understand their roles.
“The thing we want to stand on over time,” she says, “is whether you’re new or 20 years into doing this, that class is making a difference in your output and your caring in your own profession.”
A flagging work force
Eldercare workers in the United States in 2012 totaled just more than 58,000, servicing more than 8 million elders. Although home healthcare worker ranks tripled between 1989 and 2004, it was still insufficient to meet exponential demand. Registered nurses, in particular, are retiring faster than they can be replaced, according to national healthcare data. The industry also grapples with high turnover and low retention rates.
“Home care is the fastest growing segment, and non-medical caregivers are the fastest growing job, period, in the U.S,” Adeosun says. “And now we have people going into the field and not getting the support and education they need. It’s not just a nice-to-have; it is about retention.”
CareAcademy is providing those tools to help eldercare workers keep up with a legion of demand—from medication delivery to wound care to protecting elders with memory loss.
Its educational delivery via video channels aims to make learning convenient and accessible while providing a cost-effective, many-to-one learning model, Adeosun says.
The market for CareAcademy’s service is as big as the need, with industry revenue projections aiming at $300 billion by 2020, according to recent Social Security Administration data.
Optimism isn’t enough
CareAcademy, in the 2013 MassChallenge finals, has come a long way since then. Adeosun is a study in persistence: A bright academic, fresh from her Notre Dame undergrad years studying political science and Arabic, she took a brief turn with Teach for America, then went on to complete her MBA at Harvard.
She says she fell into the same trap as many entrepreneurs: She thought the path to success would be simple, “where there was obviously such a huge market.”
“It took a lot to get from there to here,” she says. “Our startup journey post-MassChallenge has been interesting. (MassChallenge) was a great step, and then it was a little hard to catch momentum after. During MassChallenge, I felt like there was a lot of support. But even companies with great buzz, they are still very much in nascence, they need a pipeline.”
CareAcademy did go on to complete a successful seed round, “from December to a little after MassChallenge in 2013,” she remembers. “Dave McLaughlin (founder of VSnap and 2012 MassChallenge alum) was still in residence and he was a great resource.”
Then the vision and the business opportunity really started to crystallize. It was then she realized she needed backup, which arrived in the form of co-founder Reddy.
“FounderDating actually worked for me,” she laughs. “I joined on while it was in beta, and in late 2014 into 2015, and I started reaching out to advisors because (angel investor and co-founder of The Impact Seat) Barbara Clarke said look into elder care. I looked, and one woman showed up in Boston. We hit it off, she’s just a go-getter and she just blew my mind. (Reddy) was an advisor to start and then became my co-founder in 2015.”
Reddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an MD with a specialty in geriatrics, came on board because she was impressed with Adeosun, her ability to get things done and especially the traction CareAcademy already had, she says.
“With my background, I realized that CareAcademy was filling a very important void in the healthcare system that was only getting larger … And I knew I had to be a part of it. I as excited to have the opportunity.”
Hustle coast to coast
The team’s commitment to quality care equals their work ethic, evidenced by how they drive the big vision for CareAcademy. “I know how to hustle and find and chase opportunities,” Adeosun says. “My parents are immigrants and they’re entrepreneurs themselves, so they always said, ‘work harder.’ ”
The duo has participated in incubators, competitions and accelerators, on the East Coast, West Coast (where they won Aging 2.0) and deep in the middle, with the top names in business—all in the pursuit of growth. “We knew we had a lot to learn, so we went everywhere to fill the gaps,” Adeosun says by phone, in between bicoastal trips to gather feedback from caregivers.
Just this past October, CareAcademy beat out 160 other startups to spend a week in Durham, N.C., at the Google for Entrepreneurs (GFE) exchange program for black founders, where Adeosun handily won the pitch competition. The victory came with a prize worth $13,000 in cash and computer equipment. But the big payoff was the weeklong mini incubator on how to raise funds that included live feedback and more exposure to VCs.
Durham’s diverse entrepreneurial community also impressed Adeosun, setting an example for what’s possible in other ecosystems, she told the Herald-Sun at the time.
The Iowa Startup Accelerator remains her favorite, she says, because other than being home to the fastest aging population in the country, with an abundance of age innovation, “there were only nine of us there (in the program), talking to (accelerator founder) Eric Englemann on the Sunday night, and he’s such a badass.”
She says the advice he gave her informs her whole experience as a founder. “We only go into intentional situations, and find people who do more than give lip service to innovation, who are willing to get on the phone at midnight and walk you through. That’s how we build momentum with nothing. That’s the ingenuity of building ecosystems that work. You have to get out there,” she says.
“So I challenge myself as a founder to find the avenues to get out there. I believe this is a great business and has a triple bottom line that will help a lot of people.”
Although she travels all over the country to learn from experts and clients, Adeosun is loyal to the Hub. “I am very Bostonian, our startup represents what’s best about the ecosystem: On the face of it, we are based in edtech and healthcare, that undergirds the whole Boston ecosystem.”
Funding and other good fortune
Investment at the right time has kept CareAcademy on track along the way. Angel investor Clarke was first money in.
“I invested in them because training caregivers is critical to health, well-being and safety of the most vulnerable people in our society,” says Clarke. “I trust Helen as CEO to lead this company over whatever terrain she faces. I’ve been impressed with Helen’s ability to surround herself with a top team of people who are as passionate as she is.”
Adeosun says Clarke’s early faith in their vision brought more support: “We were really fortunate, because she was basically our pipeline, driving us to the Pipeline Angels and investing herself.”
The company will raise again to reach scale, Reddy says.
“At this point, we have lots of paying customers, we know what our product-market fit is, and we have month-over-month growth. To get to the next level, what we most need is capital. We need the capital to scale, expand our classes and build our LMS.”
To execute a huge vision takes time and learning, Adeosun says, but with time comes experience and confidence. “Knowing how to raise money and build a team, those are all things we’ve had to learn very slowly. But we are not divergent and we are not a novelty act. We are touched by what we do,” she says. Most importantly: “We are excellent and excellently positioned to solve this huge, fundamental problem.”
Women’s work is never done
Adeosun recognizes some of the challenges she has encountered hinge on caregiving still being a woman’s problem. “On a very meta level, to acknowledge this work is to recognize caregiving is seen as women’s work,” she says. “It is by and large still women’s work the world over.
“It is supporting the work of women, to uplift those people in society who have made the greatest impact. We can either cast that aside or make the choice to bring it to light,” she continues.
“Whenever caregivers need to know something or get support, in order to give care, you have to care for yourself. Liz O’Donnell (founder of Working Daughter, a community for working women who care for their aging loved ones) does an amazing job of calling truth to this,” says Adeosun. “We want to be in the hand of every caregiver when they need to know how to care for a loved one or client. Because when we care for our care providers, they provide better care to our loved ones.”
Ultimately, she says CareAcademy will continue to provide education to as many caregivers as possible—with passion as well as profit—because aging is inevitable and universal.
“Aging is not for a set of demographics, it is who we are. Boomers, the Greatest Generation … How do we make sure they are cared for with dignity? That means having others come in to care and help,” Adeosun says.
“We recognize the value of this work on a societal level, restoring dignity to aging.”