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Many thousands of men die yearly from prostate cancer worldwide, and specifically in America and in Israel.  The reason: Denial. Men shy away from the consequences of treatment, which can involve impotence and incontinence. While women mostly welcome an annual checkup for breast cancer,  men tend to do the opposite, avoiding the annual examination of their prostate. The result: premature death for thousands.  Golfer Tiger Woods’ father died needlessly of prostate cancer.

Now a new/old technology has come to the rescue: GPS. The same technology that triangulates your location by using globally positioned satellites has been applied to treating prostate cancer.

How does it work? Small radio transponders are inserted into the cancerous tumor inside the prostate. These small radio stations send out continual radio signals. The signals are received by receivers similar to those used in the GPS system. They triangulate and locate the tumor inside your prostate precisely,  ten times a second. That enables radiologists to bombard the tumor  with precisely-aimed radiation, that hits the target while avoiding surrounding tissue. In some ways, this is like laser-guided bombs that zero in on a ground-based laser beam and hit their target precisely. This minimizes damage to the key nerve that supports sexual function or to the sphincter, the muscle that controls urine flow. 

Often innovation involves transferring technology used in one industry to an entirely different use, to meet an entirely different need. The same GPS technology that can help you find your way in Ladakh, across the Himalayas, can now help doctors fry your prostate cancer without collateral damage.
This new device is now being used by about a hundred hospitals in the United States.

The world’s population – especially in the wealthy, developed nations – is growing old rapidly. According to data from Wikipedia:

Among the countries currently classified by the United Nations as more developed (with a population of 1.2 billion in 2005), the median age of the population rose from 29.0 in 1950 to 37.3 in 2000, and is forecast to rise to 45.5 by 2050. The corresponding figures for the world as a whole are 23.9 for 1950, 26.8 for 2000, and 37.8 for 2050. In Japan, one of the fastest ageing countries in the world, in 1950 there were 9.3 people under 20 for every person over 65. By 2025 this ratio is forecast to be 0.59 people under 20 for every person older than 65.

How can innovators find success in this huge new market?  Remember, many older people have savings, assets and are willing and able to spend, provided they are offered services and products that are suitable for their needs and that align with their lifestyle.

Here are some principles, based on the fact that I myself am at the demographic borderline, and will turn 66 this November:

* Use empathy. We teach the power of empathic design: Think what you yourself might need, chances are others will, too. For 30-something innovators, it is hard to emphasize with older people. But not impossible.  Talk to them. Visit protected-living homes. Talk with grandma. Observe how they live. Remember they may not be able to articulate their needs, but you will need to discover them by observing them.

* Never patronize. Seniors hate to be patronized. Find ways to meet their needs without specifically segregating them as a market or relating to them as old. For instance, websites: Experts tell us websites should be designed in any event, for old or young, with large fonts, easy to read text and large click areas – both young and old will appreciate this user-friendliness. 

*  Nostalgia works: Research the fifties and sixties. Recycling successful products and brands from that era can work well. Become a social historian – it will be interesting as well as productive. Look at the huge success of nostalgia music and ‘60s rock bands, some of whose members have gray hair and, we suspect, false teeth…

*  Seniorize appliances: Cell phones, mouses, PC’s, TV’s, DVD’s, regular telephones, nearly every appliance can be made more attractive for seniors by meeting their specific needs. Think about innovating ‘add-ons’ that will achieve this, patent them, and market them to appliance companies. Enlist seniors as your partners, and always build mock-ups and prototypes to test. 

*  Forgetfulness: We seniors don’t remember things as well as we once did. This bothers us a lot. If you can innovate products and services that help us remember, that remind us, and that remember for us – you have a winner. Can you help us remember names? Remember medication? Remember phone numbers? Remember tasks and errands? 

As Joseph Coughlin, head of MIT’s Age Lab, says: “The new market is old age. Baby boomers provide a perpetually youthful market and are looking for technology to stay independent, engaged and vital*.”    Innovators will find success by meeting the needs of this large and growing market.
*“Eric A. Taub, “Smoothing the way to a senior lifestyle”, Int. Herald Tribune, Aug. 28/08, p. 17

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
August 2008
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