Seniors & Social Connection — Interview with Papa CEO & Founder Andrew Parker

Healthcare Interview Series with Wheel CEO & Co-founder Michelle Davey

Early on in my journey as a first-time founder and CEO, I quickly recognized the importance of building relationships and growing my network with peers and mentors to get a better understanding of how Wheel can best advance the healthcare industry forward.

The healthcare landscape is so vast and expansive, it’s nearly impossible to be an expert on all the moving parts — and getting advice from those who were on similar journeys has proven to be invaluable.

This comes back to how we landed on the name “Wheel” to describe our vision of a better healthcare system. The first wheel was invented over 5,000 years ago to help move something that one person could not move alone — which similarly represents our commitment to move the healthcare industry forward and together, with all stakeholders playing an integral role.

That’s why I’ve decided to share some of these thought provoking conversations, packed with inspiration from leaders, founders, clinicians, and advocates in healthcare. Over the coming months I’m looking forward to sharing insights and takeaways from those who are raising the bar and inspiring the next generation of healthcare innovators. These future conversations will settle on three larger themes:

Stories from founders with untraditional backgrounds, their perspectives on how we can realistically meet the “future of healthcare” promises, and guidance on how to build intentional cultures while rallying a team behind a vision.

Conversations with clinicians — the ultimate stakeholders in healthcare — on how digital health is impacting their daily work life, developments in new standards of care, and how we can better support those who are providing care to patients.

Discussions with advocates that are fighting the uphill battle to address disparities and inequality in healthcare, all the while ensuring that advancements and innovations address rather than exacerbate access gaps

To kick off this series, I recently sat down with Andrew Parker, the Founder & CEO of Papa. Papa is a company that supports seniors and their families throughout the aging journey by connecting older people with personal assistants or “Pals” that run errands, perform tasks, and serve as companions.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, loneliness and social isolation are now on top of nearly everyone’s minds. Regardless of whether we’re experiencing a global pandemic, this is a constant struggle for seniors and their families, and providing assistance and companionship can lead to long-term positive health outcomes. That’s why Papa works with insurance companies to provide services for their older members to keep them healthier and lower overall costs.

These types of resources have become even more valuable in this current moment. Papa recently expanded its services to include “assistance from a distance” so this high-risk group can get the assistance they need and feel socially connected while social distancing. Parker and his team also recently secured $18 million in Series B funding, which will be used to expand the scope of Papa’s services as well as launch in more states.

In this discussion, Parker touches on how the investor reaction to “aging in place” solutions like Papa has shifted over time, the importance of being a team player regardless of your job title, and why he’s loved building a health tech company outside of Silicon Valley.

You came up with the idea for Papa after going through the experience of looking for a companion for your grandfather. What were some of the next steps that made you decide to invest your time in building Papa?

My grandfather, who I called “Papa”, really looked forward to his visits with Andrea, the first Pal. Andrea was a college student and aspiring physician who we hired to be an extension of the family and act as a companion and provide additional oversight to my aging grandfather. I noticed how impacting having a Pal or companion was to his health and happiness. After testing with others, I quit my job and invested all my savings into building the MVP for Papa. I spent the first year reaching out to locals Floridians to launch the program. I even did many of the first visits myself! I was able to stir enough buzz to get the consumer business launched and started to build the Papa Platform. Since then, we’ve been improving the experience and scaling the tech.

“Aging in place” is now on the radar for investors — was it always? What was the experience like when you were first fundraising?

11,000 people turn 65 every day, which is up from 10,000 a day from when we first started Papa three years ago. Investors can no longer ignore that!

Loneliness is a disease and has only been exacerbated during the pandemic. The VC world is starting to see the opportunity in the aging space especially as it relates to working with health plans, systems, and employers. Over the past 8 months VCs have shifted to the focus more on digital health than ever before. The opportunity has become more clear to them.

You’re based outside of Silicon Valley. How has that introduced opportunities as well as challenges for growing Papa?

Miami is a great place to be. Talent is global and we are excited to help grow the tech ecosystem in South Florida. Most of our team is in Miami and we have found great talent across all teams from engineering to sales to customer service.

I love to hear that. The Wheel team is based in Austin and we’ve found that to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. As you mention, it’s exciting to be part of the effort to offer new types of opportunities and grow the tech industry outside of San Francisco.

Loneliness and social isolation are now on top of everyone’s minds. How has the pandemic impacted your mission and vision for Papa?

Our mission has always been to support families throughout the aging journey. We were early to the market with the idea that humanity is health. I have been in digital health for 10+ years and saw early a lot of the issues are social vs. clinical. Loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day according to an AARP study. Think about that! The pandemic has only strengthened our conviction that companionship is care and being a Pal has a positive impact.

What else is needed to better support aging in place? How can virtual care better play a role?

Generally more access, more frequent touch points, more focus on experience and health outcomes. Papa has always provided virtual and in person visits. However, older adults are now more willing to do a video visit with a Pal. This is a good thing, though driven by a bad thing (a pandemic). This huge behavior change allows us to support members better than ever before.

What is the one thing you wish the general public understood better about seniors and aging in place?

That older adults is a broad term. CMS defines a senior as someone who is 65+. That’s 40+ years of being labeled a “senior”. Grouping this large and diverse population is a big miss. That is why we built an experience for everyone; regardless of technical talent, location, or need.

What have you been most proud of your journey with Papa?

Almost each and every day I am proud to see how many people we help because of Papa. I think of my own “Papa” and how having a companion improved his life so significantly, and I hear stories and testimonials from our members and how grateful they are for the assistance and support. It’s almost surreal to be a part of this life changing program.

What has had the largest impact on your perspective as a founder?

As a founder, I’ve learned the importance of being a team player. Of course, there are many moments where I lead, but watching our teams enthusiastically collaborate to make Papa better is what keeps me going. They’re the experts in what they do, and I am honored to get a chance to learn from them everyday.

What’s the hardest part of your job today?

Running a startup; your job changes very frequently. I personally, love it. However, it’s important to realize what I’m not good at. I’ve gotten better at that as we’ve grown.

What’s on your priority list for 2021?

Continue to support members throughout the aging journey, to build a great culture, and to enhance our product suite to support members in more ways.

If you weren’t leading Papa, what would you be doing?

I would probably be living in Colorado with my dog Chewie hiking in the summer and snowboarding in the winter.

What’s the best or most impactful thing you’ve read lately?

Measure What Matters

Thank you Andrew for taking the time to share your perspective on what the future holds for “aging in place”. I’m sure our readers are feeling just as inspired by your mission and recent success as I am!