Michael Butler remembers playing a hard-fought tennis match during a winter indoor tennis session, gasping and straining as he returned ball after ball. Clearly something was wrong. After resting over the weekend, he saw his doctor. Taking one look at him, his physician sent him immediately to the ER. Seven hours of intensive testing later, Butler then 50, learned he had End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD).
Butler tells Senior Planet about the surprising journey that led him to create a new business to address health care disparities that exist in senior and minority populations.
What is it about End Stage Renal Disease that is so life-changing?
Because the kidneys no longer function optimally — and for some, hardly at all — everything in an ESRD person’s life is oriented around the hours he or she must spend weekly in a dialysis center hooked to a machine that removes wastes and extra fluids from the body. Treatment and dietary restrictions become the new realities to continue living.
Your new startup business is Novocognia, addressing healthcare disparities among minority populations. Why is End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) the first?
Because it is the most impactful adverse health event that African-Americans face today. Their rates of kidney failure is more than 3 times greater than any other population in America, with mitigating co-factors of hypertension, diabetes, lupus nephritis, toxic stress, and HIV/AIDS. In addition, they often have the so-called APOL 1 gene which appears to be a predisposing factor for kidney disease with mechanisms still not clearly understood but only found among people of African descent.
Are there other minority groups at risk for ESRD?
Yes, the next largest population groups after African-Americans are Native-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latin-Americans. Minority populations represent the majority of the roughly 600,000 patients in dialysis today. Worse, the numbers are growing. By making ESRD Novocognia’s first education effort, we kill several birds with the proverbial single stone.
How did you begin to think about creating a business venture around health education?
After so many years of dealing with my own ESRD, I realized it would be possible to help others by consolidating all the information that’s “out there” to help people slice through the learning curve more efficiently. Chronic Kidney Disease/ESRD is more widespread than is realized. It disproportionately affects minority populations, but eventually affects everyone, especially seniors.
Eventually affects everyone? Seniors? That’s a strong statement!
Not until you think about it. Our kidneys lose function as we age. The loss can be so mild that it’s barely noticeable and can be so severe (as mine is) that dialysis is required. But all seniors are affected – eventually – by kidney failure to one degree or another – another reason for Novocognia.
Did you begin your exploration with the idea of creating a business?
While it was the last thing on my mind, in many ways, Novocognia is a culmination of my life. Thanks to my grandmother’s constant advice to “Speak up! Speak out! Be aware!” I was always an advocate for people even when I was a young kid. I worked in the healthcare business for 35 years, which gave me an edge in knowing how to network in the industry.
Advocacy for others revealed an open-ended niche that needed exploring. I began taking a variety of classes. I knew something was coming together, but didn’t know what it was. Senior Planet’s “Start-Ups” class led to the incredible “Aha!” moment that gave final form to my vision. The result? I’m creating a start-up company that “informs, educates and engages” at-risk minority communities in a thoughtful, respectful way.
Succeeding with my start-up today at age 60 is the best way possible for me to age with attitude!
Senior Planet’s StartUp! course is provided with the support of Citi Community Development. This 20-week course aims to empower older adults with the knowledge and tech skills necessary to start an online business. By the end of this course, participants will have listed their products or services online, created social media accounts to promote their businesses, and started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise capital. This course is device agnostic.