Longevity Network
  • June 11, 2017
  • Sarah Flink

Finding Innovation in Unlikely Places: An Inside Look at Brookdale’s Entrepreneur in Residence Program

Finding Innovation in Unlikely Places: An Inside Look at Brookdale’s Entrepreneur in Residence Program

When asked for a single piece of advice for an aspiring entrepreneur, our Longevity Network Entrepreneurs of the Week often come back to one theme: talk to your (potential) customers. Again and again. Get all the feedback you can from real users.

It is excellent advice, except they also often report how difficult it can be to locate these users or to secure their frequent feedback.  For many, this difficulty utterly surprised them.

But this pain point turned into a productive idea at Brookdale Senior Living: an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program. As the largest provider of senior living facilities in the country—over 1000 facilities in 46 states—Brookdale saw the opportunity they had to serve as a facilitator between the companies spurring much-needed health and caregiving innovation and the seniors themselves who were the intended users.

In late 2016, The Longevity Network ran an exclusive piece on how the EIR program worked from the entrepreneur’s perspective.  But recently, we talked by phone with Andrew Smith, Director of Strategy and Innovation for Brookdale Senior Living, who is responsible for running the program as well as several other initiatives. We wanted to get a better sense of how he came into the role and how Brookdale came to see themselves as crucial to the process of driving innovation for older adults. We also wanted to find out some details on how the program is working, how it has evolved and what interested entrepreneurs might expect if they were to be selected to join the program.

The Story of Origin

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Back in 2014, Smith was working as a project manager for Brookdale, helping to relaunch their brand. As part of those conversations, he says, the strategy team realized they had a real responsibility to innovate. They formalized the 3-person team and got to work.

One day about a year later, he reports, the team was discussing the importance of “the voices of seniors getting involved in the innovation process”. In March of 2015, the Entrepreneur in Residence program was born.

In 2015-2016, Brookdale supported ten entrepreneurs spread out across different cities around the country. With each round, says Smith, the program gets more structured and Brookdale is able to provide more preparation guidance to incoming companies. So far in 2017, they’ve added two more, bringing the total number of Brookdale entrepreneurs in residence thus far to twelve.

So how does it work now? What could a participating entrepreneur expect?

First, there are the technical and legal requirements. Each team signs a legal agreement and undergoes a background check.

Beyond that, says Smith, they try to customize the approach for each company.  “The Brookdale team helps them establish what their goals are and structure their stay so they can achieve those goals.” There is a form Brookdale provides to each company to help them develop that structure and a follow-up form to help the EIR program learn and evolve, too.

Trust First, Then Data

Before arriving, the entrepreneurs are also coached that it’s critical to start with trust and then translate that into product feedback.

This is somewhere the EIR program initially stumbled, Smith adds. The entrepreneurs came in so eager for feedback that they didn’t begin with the crucial relationship-building. “They’ve got to sit with them at dinner and get to know them,” he emphasizes. “Then, along with the entrepreneurs developing close relationships and getting impromptu feedback, we facilitate more formal focus groups, one-on-one interviews and product demonstrations.”

To further support this budding relationship with a specific senior living community, in all but two cases of international companies, Brookdale has placed entrepreneurs in a facility in or near their home base. Entrepreneurs are also encouraged to establish relationships and maintain contact.

How the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence are Chosen

There is no set formula for how an entrepreneur is selected. As word gets out, says Smith, they receive a number of inquiries through their Innovation@brookdale.com email address. But they also solicit applications, from companies large and small.

When evaluating applicants, we want to know about the entrepreneur and what they want to achieve through the program. We have a number of criteria, but mainly, it has to be a fit for where they are in their process. For example, companies are not allowed to sell during the stay because we want to keep the experience positive for residents and focused on feedback.

Sometimes we layer on a Brookdale component, too, if there is something we are interested in educating ourselves about. This provides us an inexpensive, fast way to explore what’s out there. For example, Brookdale had a need to find a better way to communicate with families of our residents. We wanted to explore how you could take the successful family features of an app like Carely and translate it to an enterprise application.

From all reports, entrepreneurs find Brookdale’s EIR program immensely rewarding, personally as well as professionally. Particularly for those entrepreneurs who come in with a very clear question, they also gain a great deal of the invaluable, yet elusive, user feedback they need.

Interested entrepreneurs can find out more on Brookdale’s website or reach out at innovation@brookdale.com.

In the meantime, stay tuned for an upcoming Longevity Network installment on some of the biggest success stories of the program.

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