Papa, the eldertech unicorn, stands on shoulders of pioneers to help build Miami into ‘the epicenter of healthtech’

This story is part of an Opportunity Miami x Refresh Miami Startup Series on entrepreneurs addressing issues pivotal to Miami’s economic future. 

By Nancy Dahlberg

Miami entrepreneur Andrew Parker got the idea for his startup after he hired a college student to help his grandfather (Joseph), known to the family as “Papa.” The Parker family had difficulty managing his daily needs and helping Andrew’s grandmother, the primary caregiver.

Parker founded Papa in 2017 as a consumer app to connect older adults with vetted “Papa Pals” to help with daily tasks while combatting loneliness and isolation. In those early days of his startup, Parker explained his vision this way in a Miami Herald interview: “Our grandfather and grandmother need support; others must as well. There is a huge senior population that continues to grow daily. There are also a lot of amazing college students who want to become future nurses, doctors, and other leaders. Let’s connect these inter-generational groups and I bet something amazing happens.”

Something amazing did happen, but not without a lot of entrepreneurial grit, a vision to scale nationwide, and for Miami, a belief in the city’s potential as a healthtech hub. There have been pivots along the way; Papa’s service is now offered through health insurance plans and, more recently, employers. Yet, Papa’s mission – to create a new kind of care built on human connection – remains the guiding light.

The unicorn in eldertech

Today, Papa’s service that offers help with transportation needs, technology assistance, light housework and most importantly social interaction is available through health plans, including Medicare Advantage plans, in every state. Papa Pals are not only college students but anyone with an empathetic personality can apply, and the number of Pals on Papa’s curated platform has grown to about 35,000 nationwide. Papa is also a unicorn – a private company valued at $1 billion or more.

Last November, Papa raised $150 million in venture capital from Tiger Global, SoftBank, Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six, and other investors. The pandemic put a spotlight on the detrimental health impacts of loneliness and isolation, particularly among the elderly, and VC interest grew in “eldertech,” a segment of startups developing technologies for the older adult market. But Ohanian was an early believer and one of Papa’s first investors in 2018.

As one of #MiamiTech’s startup success stories, Papa now counts about 100 health plans as customers – including Humana, Aetna, Florida Blue and Cigna – and has been rapidly expanding into Medicaid and into employer benefits, Parker said. The startup currently employs about 550 people nationwide, and about a third of them work from Papa’s downtown Miami HQ. Not immune to worsening economic conditions, though, Papa earlier this month reduced its corporate team by 15%.

What’s ahead for Papa is continued growth through health plans that provide Papa to its members, and more recently employers. “Employers are starting to become a bigger part of our business. This could be for someone who has a kid and has older parents and now can request a Pal to help them and their family as an employee benefit,” said Parker.

Miami, the natural place to launch Papa

The alum of the prestigious accelerator Y Combinator was not among the hundreds of startup founders relocating to Miami during the pandemic; Parker has lived here since 1992. And for him, entrepreneurship is a family trait. Before launching Papa, he managed healthcare system sales, along with holding roles in product and strategy, for five years at the pioneering telehealth company MDLive founded by his father, Randy Parker. Building Papa in Miami was a natural choice.

“I’ve always loved Miami just as a place to be and live. I love the people and the diversity of thought and just the welcomeness of our great city,” Parker said. “But also a large portion of people in Florida are older adults – 20%-plus are over 65 – so just from a user perspective, that’s a great breeding ground for building a business. The key to building a startup is going to where your users are.”

When Parker started building Papa, he liked that Miami wasn’t Silicon Valley. “I’m also very proud that Miami continues to grow. When I started [Papa], there were no unicorn startup tech companies per se here, and now there are 10. Obviously, Mayor Francis [Suarez] and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava have been a big part of that and it’s really great to see politicians in the city push forward innovation and technology, and especially healthcare technology.”

Andrew Parker, CEO of Papa

Miami, the future epicenter of healthtech

Parker says we already have proof points that Greater Miami is becoming a strong healthcare-technology hub. Here are a few: Mako Surgical, a robotics pioneer, was founded in South Florida, and sold to Stryker in 2013 for $1.65 billion. One of Mako’s co-founders, Maurice Ferre, is now leading or involved with several innovative healthtech startups here: Insightec, Momentis Surgical, and DermaSensor. Other Mako employees have gone on to found scaling startups, including Alon Mozes, who is building Neosis, a dental robotics platform. MDLive was a pioneer in telehealth, which saw mass adoption during the pandemic. Dozens of South Florida healthtech startups are scaling up, including CarePredict, Brave Health, and HealthSnap. What’s more, the South Florida area is supported by strong universities, hospitals, healthcare systems, and health plans. Last year, healthcare technology was the second most active sector for venture capital in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area, with a record $1.1 billion invested in companies, tripling the dollars invested in both 2020 and 2019.

The ecosystem also attracts healthcare innovation because “Miami represents many different demographics and many different age groups and I think that’s unique to our city,” Parker said.

“I do believe Miami can be the epicenter of healthtech across the country and across the globe.”

To continue driving the Miami area forward in healthtech, Parker thinks business and government leaders should be encouraging our universities and colleges to bring in additional programs and integrate more with the healthtech community, as well as encouraging other higher education institutions to locate here.

Another key is continuing to prove that Miami is a great place for healthtech.

“When unicorns are built around a specific category like healthtech, other people that want to start businesses look to Florida as like wow, this is a place that you can do it,” said Parker, adding that he would be proud to see unicorns spawn from Papa: “Success breeds success.”

What more can Miami do to help ensure healthtech growth continues? Government leaders can continue to encourage people through different sponsorships and grants. Parker said. Venture funds could continue to come down here and invest here, he said, following the likes of SoftBank, Founders Fund, and others.

“Capital, education, and just inspiration are going to be key, and to quote the mayor, it’s not a moment, it’s a movement. This is just part of the process, part of the journey,” Parker said. “I’m very proud to have been here from the beginning and it’s exciting to see that finally people see the beauty of our great city.”

This is the final part of our Opportunity Miami x Refresh Miami Startup Series on entrepreneurs addressing issues pivotal to our economic future. The story is also published by Opportunity Miami on its Medium channel. The first three stories in the series are Kind Designs here, Career Karma here, and Code/Art here.

READ MORE: To scale ‘the power of human connection,’ Papa raises $150M Series D. And we have a new unicorn

Nancy Dahlberg