Mining for Silver
As Singapore’s population ages, its growing army of senior citizens will become increasingly attractive to businesses
It has become an increasingly common sight in Singapore. On pavements, mobility scooters jostle for space with able-bodied office workers. In air-conditioned food courts, gaggles of silverhaired individuals congregate for coffee and conversation.
It is not surprising that senior citizens are now so visible in Singapore. In December 2017, it was revealed that there are now more than half-a-million citizens and residents aged 65 and above.
By 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be senior citizens. Given that people are having smaller families and that life expectancies are increasing, the occasional mobility scooter seen today will eventually turn into a convoy, lumbering down paths and pavements all around the island.
For entrepreneurs and companies, Singapore’s changing population profile represents new opportunities. Singapore’s silver-haired grandmothers and grandfathers may be in their sunset years, but their increasing numbers represent a sunrise industry.
According to an estimate by market consultancy Ageing Asia, the eldercare industry will be worth US$3.3 trillion in the Asia Pacific by 2020, with the number for Singapore hitting US$46 billion.
Ms. Janice Chia, the founder of Ageing Asia, says that companies expect the market to explode in 2025. However, companies in Singapore still haven’t quite cottoned on to the opportunities in the silver market, according to her.
“They know it’s going to be big but they don’t know how to get into the ageing market.” As bodies age, there are physiological changes that need to be addressed, notes Mr. Kim Walker, the chief executive of strategic marketing consultancy Silver Group. “Therefore, any business person who is serious about meeting the needs of the population as it ages, must understand these physiological changes.”
The market is much bigger than reading glasses, walking sticks, grab bars and shower chairs though. In addition, Mr Walker believes that apart from new products, there are also opportunities for companies to take existing products and services and retool them for older consumers.
“Repurposing is a huge opportunity,” he says. “Think Grab for senior citizens. Think Match.com, which is now extremely popular among the 50-plus set.”
Successfully targeting older consumers will require that the entire customer journey be re-evaluated though. “That includes communications, the online experience, in-store (retail), product design and the services that surround it all.”
HOME CARE MARKET TAKES OFF
In Singapore, because people prefer to grow old at home, one immediate opportunity is home care, says Ms. Chia.
Much of the activity in the home care market is taking place at the nexus between demand and supply. A number of start-ups are looking to be the Grab of the home therapy market. These companies believe by leveraging on technology, they can help people find caregivers more easily.
This sector appears to be ripe for disruption because until recently, much of it appeared to be mired in the 1980s. “It’s an industry that hasn’t been fully impacted by technology,” says Ms. Gillian Tee, the founder of Homage.
After experiencing the difficulty of finding a caregiver for her former nanny (now deceased), Ms. Tee started Homage in 2016 as a matchmaking platform between caregivers and those seeking them. The company currently has 800 full-time and part-time caregivers in its database and is looking to expand into Malaysia.
A similar company, Caregiver Asia, was founded by Ms. Yeo Wan Ling in 2014. The company describes itself as an online aggregator of health and caregiving services. It has between 7,000 and 8,000 Singapore-based caregivers in its database. Thanks to its success, the company has expanded its offerings into Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and the United States.
There is also a lot of excitement around leveraging technology to directly improve the lot of the elderly. Think of how the latest Apple Watch is making waves because of its ability to detect falls and do EKG readings.
In Singapore, companies are racing to put smart sensors in the home to ensure that people can keep tabs on their loves ones who might be alone at home. Companies like Australian-listed HomeStay Care have an Internet-of-things platform that can be used to build a smart home. In this home, sensors can detect if someone is possibly in danger.
TARGETING THE HIGH-END MARKET
Businesses aren’t just looking for cuttingedge technology to sell new products and services though. Some companies are taking the old fashioned route of targeting the premium end of the market, providing services to a segment of the population where the margins are higher.
There are now senior activity centers like Hovi Club in Turf City that allows clients to groom horses or engage in water therapy. Monthly fees at Hovi Club range from $1,800 to $2,400 for a five-day week.
Companies are also offering premium versions of long-term residential care. While nursing homes in Singapore are currently viewed as grim dormitories with regimented programs and less than pleasant living conditions, a new generation of nursing homes are offering something vastly different.
St. Bernadette’s Lifestyle Village in Bukit Timah is an assisted living facility that offers single rooms with en-suite facilities. At St. Bernadette’s, care with meals comes to about $4,200 a month.
St. Bernadette is just an eight-bed facility though. At the other end of the spectrum is Allium Healthcare Holdings, a subsidiary of investment holding company G.K. Goh Holdings. Allium is building a 129-bed nursing home on Venus Drive, which is scheduled to open in mid-2019. The nursing home will only have single and double rooms, all with ensuite facilities.
The existence of all these companies is evidence that businesses see a market opportunity from eldercare. And it’s not just entrepreneurs either. Venture capital money is also interested in this segment.
Homage has recently completed its Series A funding, and in total, it has raised between $7 and $8 million so far, says Ms. Tee. “There is a lot of interest from VCs.”
Ms. Yeo of Caregiver Asia agrees. “I have had four or five different VCs come to me to tell me they are interested in investing in us,” she says. The company has done three rounds of funding already: a seed round, their Series-A, and early Series-B funding.
While VC interest might suggest that eldercare could be highly profitable, this might only be true in sectors where technology offers the potential for disruption, and thus large returns. In describing the industry in general, Aging Asia’s Ms. Chia describes it as requiring “patient capital”.
Mr. Bernie Poh, Allium’s chief executive, takes pains to note that investors in this sector would need to wait longer than normal to see returns. “This is not the FMCG sector,” he says.
A CHANGING REGULATORY REGIME
An important factor determining profitability is government regulations. Currently, many of the companies in the space are regulated under the Private Hospital and Medical Clinics Act.
The Act was enacted in 1980 and last amended in 1999. Much has happened in Singapore in the last two decades, and the country’s Ministry of Health recognizes the need for new care models across different settings and providers. In addition, new medical and health technologies have given rise to new and fast changing healthcare services.
As a result, the government plans to replace the existing Act with a new Healthcare Services Act in 2019.
Most of the companies interviewed report that the government has consulted them on the new Act and they welcome the move to the new regime.
Currently, under the existing regulations, companies such as
St. Bernadette’s that run an assisted living facility end up being governed by the same yardstick as acute hospitals, a sore point for Dr. Belinda Wee, the founder of the company.
In addition, current regulations require different premises for different services, which means that if a nursing home wanted to offer daycare services or rehab services, they would need to have separate premises.
Under the new proposed law, healthcare providers will be licensed based on the type of services they provide rather than on physical premises. The change is something that Dr. Wee is looking forward to.
Caregiver Asia’s Ms. Yeo says her concern has been about the licensing of caregivers. “While people providing therapeutic care have to be rigorously trained, we also have general caregivers like
nurse aides and even companions who (is paid to) read newspapers aloud. Are you looking for a licensing body for every single one of these groups?,” she asks rhetorically.
She says that she has been talking to the relevant ministry about these issues.
Regulatory frameworks aside, Ms. Yeo has found that the different government agencies in Singapore are interested in wanting to address the issues around Singapore’s ageing population.
“I see a concerted effort among Singapore agencies and bodies like the NTUC to work on ageing.
“That’s the great thing about Singapore. It’s like a kampung where everyone comes together.”