Optum Ventures invests in personal assistant service for aging adults

Optum Ventures is investing in senior care startup DUOS to help fuel the company's growth and build out its technology capabilities.

Launched in 2021, New York-based DUOS helps place expert personal assistants, called “Duos," into the homes of seniors. The company works directly with consumers as well as with payer and provider organizations.

DUOS banked $15 million in series A funding led by Imaginary Ventures along with participation from existing investors Forerunner Ventures and Declaration Partners and Optum's venture arm as a new investor.

The company plans to use the fresh capital to drive technology advancements and hiring to support the company's aggressive growth plans. "This investment milestone is significant for DUOS as it allows us to power new technology that will enhance everyday experiences for older adults and their caregivers," said Karl Ulfers, CEO and co-founder of DUOS, in a statement. "The world is short on people, and this technology will help scale our services to millions of individuals across the country."

Older adults are facing a two-pronged crisis. First, approximately 10,000 American adults are turning 65-plus each day. The entire baby boomer generation will be over age 65 by 2030, meaning 1 in 5 Americans will be of retirement age. Also, 51% of older adults have at least one unmet fundamental social need around areas such as transportation, food or housing. These problems will only continue to accelerate as the older adult demographic grows.

At the same time, the number of unpaid family caregivers in the U.S. increased by nearly 10 million people between 2015 and 2020 to 54 million. DUOS is a solution for lifting a significant portion of the burden of these caregivers, who are often part of the "sandwich generation," taking care of both young children and aging parents, according to company executives.

The company says it addresses these problems with its unique "system of aging," which uses a mix of technology and the human touch to connect older adults and their caretakers to a network of service providers to help members with their social needs, care navigation needs and physical aging needs. Old adults can get help with transportation, food delivery, healthcare appointments and additional services.






Through interpersonal communication and technology, DUOS identifies and addresses the individual needs of older adults by leveraging Medicare benefits, trusted partners and local service providers. 

The company has raised $21 million to date and has inked several partnerships with health insurance plans including Magellan Healthcare, Geisinger Health Plan and other national and regional payers and providers in California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Georgia.

DUOS plans to announce additional partnerships in 2022 and will hire and train over 100 Duos to serve individual members. To keep up with growth, DUOS is looking to hire engineers, product managers, operations experts and marketers.

"Magellan Healthcare is committed to transforming the healthcare experience through high-tech and high-touch solutions that complement the human touch brought by Magellan to address whole-person healthcare--life, mind and body," said Caroline Carney, M.D., Magellan Healthcare's president of behavioral health and chief medical officer of Magellan Health, in a statement.

Early work with DUOS shows successful identification of and interventions for needs expressed by older adults as well as very high levels of satisfaction, Carney said. "This is a very promising tool supporting our work in providing holistic care for those suffering from social isolation," she said.

By working with payers, company executives say its services help close gaps in care and improve targeted HEDIS measures. The tech-enabled service also helps drive member satisfaction, which is a value-add to its partners as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently doubled the impact of the Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems survey results from 2x to 4x within a health plan's overall Star Rating, making member experience one of the most significant contributors to a health plan's overall Star Rating, executives said.

"We have always been hyper-focused on solving consumer problems, and DUOS is working to solve one of the biggest of our generation. The DUOS team brings deep healthcare expertise with a hyper-focus on the end consumer they are serving. We think this consumer-fueled approach creates an exceptional experience tailored to the needs of aging adults," said Kelly Dill, partner at Imaginary Ventures, in a statement.

The company also is in the process of building an easy-to-use app to help streamline communication and task management and tap into a curated marketplace of partners for everyday needs. Members will have the option of communicating with their Duo in person, over the phone or through the app.

Startups and venture capital investors are eyeing opportunities to serve the fast-growing aging population, with a particular focus on addressing social needs and supporting caregivers.

Crunchbase reports that in the first half of 2021, venture capital firms poured over half a billion dollars into U.S. startups focused on eldercare and home health care.

Several startups focused on eldercare have reached digital health "unicorn" status.

Papa, a startup tackling loneliness among seniors by providing companionship and support, picked up $150 million in fresh funding in November, boosting its valuation to $1.4 billion, according to the startup. Investors include SoftBank Vision Fund 2 and Tiger Global Management, and the "family-on-demand" company has raised $240 million to date.

Also last fall, home and senior care platform Honor scored $70 million in series E funding and $300 million in debt financing. The round, which brings Honor's total equity funding to date to $325 million, stepped up the company's valuation to $1.25 billion, according to the company.

Other companies in the market include Carewell, which provides advocacy for caregivers and an e-commerce site for home health products; Serenity Engage, a HIPAA-compliant messaging app platform for senior care; and Grayce, which helps family members navigate care needs for aging relatives.

As health plans get longer leashes when it comes to addressing social determinants of health, loneliness among seniors has become a crucial target for Medicare Advantage (MA) insurers.

CMS has opened new avenues for supplemental benefits in MA that target the social determinants of health.