On March 25, 2014 I was honored to receive the Northeastern Compass Award, presented by the Office of Alumni Relations. This award is given to one senior from each of Northeastern’s eight colleges that has demonstrated leadership, volunteerism, academic integrity, and a commitment to Northeastern.
On April 3, 2013, an article was published in the Northeastern News about my recent co-op experience at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The article covers the RVU Tracker application I developed there which measures doctor productivity and incentivizes efficient billing practices and helps tracks the types of shifts doctors work.
The experience I gained working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, working alongside the Hospitalist Service administrator, Kimberely Reynolds and Dr. Anuj Dalal, MD, has been tremendously valuable. It was the first time I had designed, written, and released my own software application. The tool is in use today to measure the performance and patient interactions of over 100 doctors and is having a significant impact on the fiscal budget of the Hospitalist group. All this responsibility granted to an intern goes a long way to vouch for Northeastern’s unique and world-renowned co-op program. If it were not for the great team at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital that I worked with, this also would not have been possible.
Today I am proud to announce the launch of the new Northeastern University Social Enterprise Review (SER) website. Managed and written by the smart and globally-conscious students of the Social Enterprise Institute, the SER is a collection of op-ed articles concerning social entrepreneurship (which is most of what I’ve been talking about so far on this blog).
Regularly, new articles written by students at Northeastern will be posted to the website covering important developments in topics such as impact measurement, agriculture and health care advancements in the developing world, microfinance, social-minded business model designs, and governance issues. As of today’s launch, over 40 op-eds are already featured on the website, written by more than 20 different students of varying backgrounds and perspectives.
Working together with the Social Enterprise Institute’s Assistant Director of Programs Esther Chou and Project Manager Caitlin Ferguson, along with graphic designer and Northeastern student Taryn Sadauskas, we put together this website over the past few months. Couldn’t have asked for a better team.
Please check the website out and let us know if you have any feedback regarding the content itself or the website experience! Stay tuned for copies of future printed editions of the SER as well.
On November 5, 2012, I attended the Profiles in Innovation speaker series at Northeastern University where NEU President Joseph Aoun spoke with systems biologist Dr. Leroy Hood. Dr. Hood was one of the original scientists behind the Human Genome Project, enabling its progress by creating the first automated gene sequencing mechanism. Two weeks ago, on February 1, 2013, Dr. Hood received the National Medal of Science from President Obama for a lifetime full of scientific achievements and contributions.
Hearing Dr. Hood’s points affirmed that the healthcare industry is ripe for innovation in so many different ways and angles. Dr. Hood presented several problems and paradigms throughout his interview that need attention, that need the ingenuity and passion of scientists, businessmen, and software engineers to achieve. I have summarized some of what Dr. Hood shared with us below:
Opportunity #1: Eliminating Signal to Noise Issues
Dr. Hood discussed that in DNA sequencing on a macro level (sequencing every human’s data to find large and common patterns) as well as on an individual level, one problem scientists face is in removing the noise from their analysis and data. For example, a DNA sample may be contaminated with foreign chemicals or substances, and scientists need to isolate what they are studying to get the correct samples. Similarly, we need to be able to remove any noise from the billions of lines of data we collect and to quickly see what’s true. We simply are not yet confident enough in the data gathered because of this signal to noise problem.
Opportunity #2: Making Existing Tools and Research Accessible and Affordable
While much of the technology needed to sequence a genome and possibly even cure cancer already exist, the use of many such tools are blocked by patents or private organizations who are not sharing. If these tools and research findings are made more accessible, we can collaborate and work together to make faster progress in our missions to cure diseases or find vaccines for HIV, malaria, and other epidemic infections. Organizations such as The Broad Institute are doing the good deed here in putting their research online for anyone to read and learn from without having to deal with restrictive and prohibitive copyright protection.
Opportunity #3: Finding the Genes that Facilitate Wellness
One of the highlights of Dr. Hood’s interview was his statement that in 20 or so years, this industry will be less about “healthcare” and more about “wellness” promotion. The idea behind physical and mental wellness is to promote prevention and healthy lifestyles that can keep people out of expensive emergency rooms and sick beds. Right now the majority of DNA sequencing is being done to identify disease genes, but soon we will also look at our DNA to see identify genes that make us strong and healthy. Knowing which genes these are can open many doors.
Opportunity #4: Building Patient-Centered Online Social Networks
The idea of social networking (securely) should be replicated in healthcare so that doctors can build closer relationships with their patients and the other doctors working on their patients. If doctor-patient communication is only happening when patients are sick, then there is little prevention and wellness being assured. Patients can keep in touch with their doctors to provide updates and symptom alerts without having to face the opportunity costs of taking time off of work to go to simple appointments for what could be no problem at all, or to take up space in emergency rooms when their case is not an emergency. Plus, if a social network can mine all the data patients have, we can extrapolate it, study traits and come closer to finding cures by locating patterns among huge data sets of patients.
Opportunity #5: Inventing Hand-Held Devices for Genome Sequencing
In order to get every human’s genome sequenced, we’ll need to simplify sequencing enough so that it could be done on our own devices like our smartphones. Innovative companies like 23andMe are aggressively working at this problem and are able to sequence the DNA of their clients for just $99. The price of genome sequencing has come a long way. Just 10 years ago, the cost of sequencing one genome was a staggering $95 million dollars. We are now reaching the $100 threshold!
Opportunity #6: Providing Accurate and Reliable Medical Information Online
With the internet and tools like WebMD and Wikipedia, more people every day are going online to look up what conditions they have based on apparent symptoms or to find their likelihood of having certain diseases based on family history. However, the data presented is not clear and is not accurate for everyone. People can grow worried and confused when finding frightening information that in reality may not be applicable at all to their situations. Better, more person-specific tools that are accessible from one’s home must be created. Human health is not as mechanically systematic as a computer, for example, and thus health research needs to be tailored more towards the individual and their own history. This is where Watson can come in. Watson, a supercomputer developed by IBM that outsmarted Jeopardy champions without the use of an internet connection, is better capable at providing patient-specific information on the go than a Google search can.
Opportunity #7: Studying and Analyzing Cells
While we are now getting a hang of sequencing and understanding DNA, we still haven’t done enough analysis at the cell and molecular level to see how these basic human blocks of life work and remain strong.
Opportunity #8: Creating High-Resolution Molecular Imaging
Related to problem 7, scientists are searching for the technology to capture high-resolution images at the molecular level to better understand the composition of different human molecules as well as to see how infected molecules look like versus healthy ones.
Opportunity #9: Advanced, Gene-Centered In-Vitro Fertilization
According to Dr. Hood, it will not be long till parents are being asked by doctors which genes they want to transfer to their children. By collecting DNA samples of separated sperm and egg samples, scientists can identify the samples with the least amount of genetic problems and combine the two to produce a child through in-vitro fertilization.
Opportunity #10: Calculating Someone’s Chronological & Physiological Ages
While a person may be 70 years old according to their birth certificate, they may have the health and well-being of a typical 50 year old. Calculating this number can be used as an important indicator of someone’s wellness. Like we use the S&P 500 benchmark to quickly measure one company’s share value against industry standards, we can create benchmarks of what an ideal person looks like at each age to use to compare patients and realize how healthy they are for someone their age. If a patient is physiologically older than their age, this is a bad sign and a doctor can provide guidance and direction on how to reverse that trend.
Opportunity #11: Understanding the Quality of Skin’s Effects on Health
Dr. Hood brought up a point towards the end of his interview that more research needs to be done on the effects skin health has on the rest of a person’s health. Dr. Hood seemed to suggest that we are unaware of just how important skin health is to our well-being.
It was a great pleasure to hear Dr. Hood speak and to learn from a man who has had such a tremendous impact on advanced medical research. If you were to tackle any of these eleven problems that he addressed, you too could leave your mark on the human condition.
I personally hope to.
This post is the first in a series I will be contributing for my Business Model Designs for Social Impact course at Northeastern University. This is the course’s first time being offered and it is taught by Professor Gordon K. Admodza. In this series, I will be publishing my findings on different social innovators and the business models that are allowing their inventions to reach the people most in need. As a class, we define social innovations as sustainable, pro-poor solutions.
Throughout the 2013 Spring semester, I will be working as a consultant for a company working in the clean water and sanitation space along with a team of six taking a Business Model Design course at Northeastern University. This company we are supporting, like many others around the world, are pursuing one of the most life-saving social missions in the developing world. It is summarized as goal 7C of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” As millions die each year due to waterborne illnesses, researchers and entrepreneurs around the world are looking for solutions that can save lives. The following is a review of some of the names tirelessly working away at this problem along with a brief summary of the business models that allow their work to be sustainable.
First off, two of the biggest names in clean water movements are charity: water and water.org. These are primarily aid organizations with heavy celebritysupport. They run some of the most effective philanthropic social media campaigns and by doing so, are able to raise millions of dollars that have been invested in water well and deposit construction projects around the developing world. The construction of such projects are done by partnering organizations based in the communities at stake.
While the above groups are primarily advocacy and fundraising based, other organizations are innovating on the technology front. LifeStraw is a ‘point-of-use’ technology that literally acts as a straw to be used when drinking dirty water right from the source, such as from a river stained by pollution or animal excrement or a water well that lacks proper insulation. LifeStraw’s business model includes receiving funding from major NGOs to distribute their product for free in the developing world, while also marketing their product to people of the first world who hike and camp outdoors.
The second element of this Millennium Development Goal is to provide basic sanitation to the developing world. Because the concept and possibility of sewage systems as we picture them in the first world are currently unfeasible to build in many rural developing communities, it is very normal for human and animal waste to be ‘deposited’ in back yards or by water sources. Flooding, for example, can then lift this waste and mix it in with the same water sources that people are drinking from. Because waste is toxic and filled with bacteria, the international community has recognized that investments must be made into sanitation infrastructure in developing communities. Some of the world’s most famous philanthropists, such as Bill Gates through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have invested in sanitation projects aimed at tackling this issue. One such project the Gates support is a solar-powered toilet designed by California Institute of Technology professor Michael Hoffman. Solar energy is harnessed to power an electrochemical reactor which breaks down waste and creates fertilizer or energy that is recycled to power the flushing mechanism on the toilet. The toilet uses no outside water source and produces no pollutants. No plans have yet been released regarding this group’s business model.
These are just some of the hundreds of brilliant innovators around the world using technology, business, or systems-based approaches to solve the world’s most pressing demands. Their impact on lives saved can be seen in the numbers. According to the World Bank, 1.6 billion people gained access to clean drinking water from 1990 to 2006, making Millennium Development Goal #7 one of only two goals (out of eight super-goals) that will have been achieved by the UN-mandated deadline of 2015. The work is not complete, however, as 2.5 billion people still lack basic sanitation and 8% of the world’s population — eight in one hundred people — will still not have access to clean water by 2015.