#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Jay Newton-Small, Co-Founder, MemoryWell
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
A New Age in Aging Care
Jay Newton-Small has a background in journalism. By utilizing her passion for storytelling, Jay created MemoryWell, a startup that seeks to improve the long-term care of those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia. As a former fellow at Halcyon House, Jay continues to impact social change as she seeks to change the way we look at aging care. She leaned on D.C.'s ecosystem with strong partners in the aging space to grow her company. However, Jay hopes the government will play a bigger role in convening innovators and traditional partners to better support the aging industry.
Tell me about you. What’s your background?
My background is in journalism. I was a national correspondent for Bloomberg News for four years before heading to TIME Magazine where I spent the last decade. At TIME, I authored nearly a dozen cover stories, covered stories on five continents and wrote the best-selling book, “Broad Influence, How Women Are Changing the Way America Works.”
Tell me more about MemoryWell. Why did you start MemoryWell? How big is your company?
I was also my father’s primary caregiver. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was still a senior in college. A few years ago, when I moved him into a community, they asked me to fill out a multi-page questionnaire about his life. I was a professional writer and I challenge anyone to answer some of those questions well, like describe your parents’ 50+ year marriage in four lines. And who would ever remember pages of hand-written data points for the 100+ residents in that particular community? No one. Instead, I wrote down his story, printed it out and handed it out to all of his caregivers. They loved it. They remembered it and told each other about it. Two of his caregivers were Ethiopian and they’d had no idea that my father had lived in Ethiopia for the first four years of his United Nations career. They became his champions, sitting for hours asking him about his time with Emperor Haile Selassie. Dad loved it because he remembered Africa from his early 20’s, even if he didn’t often remember last week. The story transformed his care.
MemoryWell was born. We now have a network of more than 550 writers across the country. We work with assisted living facilities and home care agencies to replace large swathes of questionnaires when seniors are entering care with professional told stories that we host digitally. Families can then add in their loved ones’ favorite music, movies, photos and readings. That way, whomever is sitting with them whether it’s a paid caregiver, or a grandchild, they have a whole tool box of things with which to engage that person.
Why’d you get started in D.C.? What makes D.C. an ideal place to start a company?
D.C. was my home. At first, I thought I’d have to move to San Francisco to launch MemoryWell. But it turns out there’s an enormous aging world here: AARP, LeadingAge, NIH, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, American Health Care Association—they’re all based here.
What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the D.C. ecosystem in the last year?
Amazon named three areas in and around D.C. in the top 10 finalists for its HQ2.
How have you partnered with government officials in the aging space? Are there ways to inspire more innovation in the aging space?
Senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia are both writing about their caregiving experiences for MemoryWell’s website. We’ve had talks with CMS’s policy team about innovating in Medicare Advantage.
People don’t realize that government is the biggest driver of disruption. We’ve applied for Small Business Innovation Research funding from the National Science Foundation, often called America’s seed fund. Not only are they willing to take bets on innovations that might be deemed too risky by investors, but they influence who supply chains. When CMS or NIH or DOD changes their rules, companies scramble to figure out how to innovate to meet those changes. Especially in the healthcare space, nothing is more disruptive and game-changing than the federal government enacting sweeping change.
How involved are your government representatives in the Washington, D.C. startup space?
They’re pretty involved. I’ve spoken on panels with representatives from the U.S. Digital Service. I’m often invited to D.C. government, Virginia and Maryland innovation tech events.
What is the biggest challenge you still face?
Fundraising. For all that D.C. has been a supportive startup ecosystem, especially as a women-run company, there isn’t the same access to capital for early seed stage companies as there is in California.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for the startup ecosystem?
More angel investors willing to take bets on early stage companies.
There are so many players here in the aging space but there isn’t anything that ties them together and gets them to talk to one another. They could come together with some government encouragement to invest in a much bigger ecosystem for aging startups in the D.C. area. This is a massive growth market where D.C. has the potential to lead with the right leadership.
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