Last Thursday, the second annual University of Michigan Innovation In Action competition concluded, with six stunning student pitches for startups that could make a significant dent on the health and well-being of communities.  It was a great example of what can be achieved at the intersection of public health, entrepreneurship, and the creativity and energy that students can bring to real-world problems.

Innovation In Action

Conceived and led by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the six-month long Innovation In Action competition sets out to empower students to innovate solutions that address public health problems, while creating a safe environment where they can take risks and move their ideas beyond the classroom.  It’s an initiative that is contributing to a new vision of public health.

For the field of public health to remain relevant and impactful in today’s rapidly changing world, we need to train and develop a new type of public health leader.  We need people who combine a passion for improving health and well-being, with the ability to to make a difference in a world where the means to address health and well-being challenges are evolving as fast – if not faster – than the challenges themselves.

Innovation in Public Health

As I write this, news is coming in of the devastation across the islands of Vanuatu, and the immediate health challenges that the nation is facing – likely exacerbated by human-driven climate change.  We are still reeling with the after-shocks of last year’s ebola outbreak.  And just as significantly, but not quite so obvious, communities across the world – in developed as well as developing economies – are fighting a running battle against the health and well-being impacts of poverty, food shortages, pollution, diabetes, and a long list of other challenges.  For public health to make a difference in this world, there is a desperate need for innovation – new ideas, new thinking, new partnerships, and new solutions to improving peoples’ lives.  Against this backdrop, the Innovation In Action Competition is paving the way to a new public health mindset that uses creativity, entrepreneurship and imagination to change the world for the better.

This year’s finalists especially reflect what is possible when you bring students together from different backgrounds and challenge them to find creative solutions to real-world problems.  The teams (see below) tackled issues ranging from access to nutritious food and type 2 diabetes, to anxiety disorder and HIV.  In each case, they successfully developed the beginnings of innovative, practicable and sustainable solutions to addressing key public health challenges.

The Finalists

The six finalists in this year’s competition were:

LivPoz (1st place)

When faced with an ongoing, life-altering illness, how does a person cope? For HIV patients, managing a strict medication and lifestyle regimen is quite literally a matter of life or death. This constant need for vigilance lends itself to a sense of overwhelm, leaving plenty of room for serious errors to occur. Our mobile app, LivPoz, alleviates this burden. LivPoz is a tool for HIV patients to manage their medications and maintain a healthy, positive mindset.

Team members:

Maria Gosur, School of Information
Ryan Gourley, School of Natural Resources & Environment, Ross School of Business, and College of Engineering
Ryan Sanii, Environmental Health Science, School of Public Health and School of Information
Ramit Saraswat, College of Engineering
Jin Zhang, College of Engineering

Fresh Fare (2nd place)

FreshFare is an innovative solution to a debilitating barrier to food access—lack of reliable transportation—by establishing an interface between grocery retailers and a rideshare program to enable transportation-limited individuals to shop for healthy foods in well-stocked grocery stores. Grocery stores and rideshare companies employ this service to give tiered, need-based subsidies on shopping trips. Through this, grocery stores and rideshare companies not only gain a larger market share, but can also demonstrate a concrete, action-based commitment to ameliorating a public health dilemma. Our innovation unlocks the latent power of existing infrastructure to improve community health while broadening the customer base for two local business sectors.

Team members:

Ali Jensen, Health Management and Policy, School of Public Health
Stacey Matlen, Health Behavior Health Education, School of Public Health
Christine Priori, Health Management and Policy, School of Public Health and Ross School of Business
Mikaela Rodkin, School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) and Ross School of Business

Chop Chop (3rd Place tie)

Chop Chop makes healthy choices accessible, appealing, and affordable! Our product is a convenient “grab-n-go” dinner kit, complete with a “30 minute or less” recipe and the fresh, seasonal pre-measured ingredients necessary to prepare a delicious and healthy meal. All of our bags will be available as 2- or 4-portion dishes with meat, fish, and vegetarian options. The kits will be available at grocery stores near you!

Team members:

Shaila Chhibba, Health Management and Policy, School of Public Health and Ross School of Business
Margaret Dowling, Health Behavior Health Education, School of Public Health
Lily Hamburger, Ross School of Business
Molly Maher, Health Informatics, School of Public Health and School of Information
Abigail Schachter, Health Behavior Health Education, School of Public Health
Carly Thanhouser, Health Behavior Health Education, School of Public Health

HOME (3rd Place tie)

Native Americans are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes mellitus than non-Hispanic white adults. While this is the result of multiple factors, the prominent challenges include the lack of youth involvement in diabetes awareness, limited access to resources for diabetes prevention and management, and the absence of initiatives directed towards the support networks of people with diabetes. These main concepts will be addressed through a culturally-tailored diabetes community group modeled after the traditional talking circle. Our target audience for these community groups will include both the individual with diabetes as well as their support network.

Team members:

Ashley Shar, College of Pharmacy
Stephanie Burke, College of Pharmacy
Emily Hearst, Health Management and Policy, School of Public Health
Emily Stebbins, Health Management and Policy, School of Public Health

Change of Mind

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting 40 million adults or 18% of the population. This is a whole 1/3rd of America’s mental health bill. Although evidence-based psychotherapy works, the stigma associated as well as paper-based homeworks limits its effectiveness once outside the clinic. At Change of Mind, we are creating a community-based mobile toolkit for individuals to help embrace, engage, and manage their anxieties toward a transformed life.

Team members:

Evan Gennrich, School of Information and LSA
Lei Yu, Biostatistics, School of Public Health
Lamees Mekkaoui, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
Sushmitha Diraviam, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
Sean Ma, Department of Psychiatry, Medical School
Aaron Schippert, Lead UX Designer

PreLeaf (formerly know as Kitchen Confidence)

Kitchen Confidence was created to solve the problem when people ask what should I eat? And, how do I make it? Quite often, people trying to lose weight [or motivated to prevent the development of diabetes, or improve cardiovascular health, pretty much any obesity-related disease] are overwhelmed with outdated nutrition information and are left alone in their kitchen with complicated recipes that are difficult to follow. Kitchen Confidence will help you make healthier choices and develop confidence in your kitchen by guiding you through every step of the cooking process with your very own personalized cooking school. Our interactive video clips will not only provide you with up-to-date nutrition information, but will make the entire process of cooking healthy food more encouraging and enjoyable.”

Team members:

Gabriel Martinez-Santibañez, Medical School
Nehal Molasaria, School of Information
Nora White, Environmental Health Sciences (Nutrition), School of Public Health

The winning team received $10,000 to continue developing their concept (sponsored by Northrop Grumman), with the second team receiving $7,500 (sponsored by Innovate Blue), and the 3rd team $5,000 (sponsored by Arboretum Ventures) – enough to kick-start a successful public health startup!

Congratulations to them all!

Andrew Maynard