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YSPH Student Innovators Respond to Pandemic Needs

April 16, 2020
by Colin Poitras

While working as a retail pharmacist during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Leslie Asanga, APMPH ’20, noticed elderly customers standing in crowded lines waiting to pick up their medication.

Realizing the difficulty in maintaining physical distancing and worried about their possible exposure to the menacing COVID-19 virus, Asanga thought there had to be a better way.

So began the launch of Pills2Me.com, an online platform that allows older adults, people with compromised immune systems, and those with other health vulnerabilities to order their medications at home and have them delivered by a volunteer at no charge the same day.

“Once we get a patient request, we match the patient with an available volunteer who then picks up the patient's medication and delivers it to their doorstep all while avoiding any physical contact,” said Asanga, who developed the service with fellow student, Leonardo Lizbinski, MPH ‘20.

Pills2Me.com, part of ePharmHub, another online pharmacy venture co-founded by Asanga and Lizbinski, is one of several social enterprises spearheaded by Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) students that are competing for funding during Startup Yale 2020, the university’s annual entrepreneurship awards contest.

InnovateHealth Yale, the YSPH program that supports students’ innovative solutions to public health challenges, is sponsoring two Startup Yale prizes this year. The $10,000 Rita Wilson Prize Fund in Support of Innovation and Entrepreneurship will be given to the best student-led technical solution to address a health disparity in the U.S. The $25,000 Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health or Education, as the name implies, is given to the best student-led social innovation in health or education.

Due to physical restrictions currently in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Startup Yale competition is taking place virtually on Thursday and Friday (April 16-17).

Those interested in watching the competition can access the Zoom livestream by registering on the Startup Yale website.

The two-day competition begins with opening remarks at 9:45 a.m. Thursday. The Wilson prize competition begins at 9:15 a.m. Friday with the Thorne Prize to follow at 12:45 p.m. Viewers will have the opportunity to see student teams pitch their ideas virtually, hear from judges, and participate in an audience choice vote.

“A large number of YSPH students have stepped up to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and they have done so in the most creative ways,” said Associate Professor Kaveh Khoshnood, PhD ’95, MPH ’89, faculty director of InnovateHealth Yale. “From free home medication delivery for vulnerable populations to developing an app-based approach to do proactive contact tracing, I am so proud of our students who have responded to COVID-19 with innovative ideas.”

The contact tracing app Khoshnood mentions was developed by Tyler Shelby, a third year MD/PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases). Unlike other contact tracing applications which rely on Bluetooth technology and an exclusive quantitative approach to information gathering, Shelby’s SocialTrace app (currently under development) take a hybrid approach combining both automatically collected and self-reported data.

“The real-time contact network that this app will produce will allow users to monitor their risk and alert them to any potential exposures,” Shelby said. “At the same time, our archive of interactions will save public health officials countless hours by replacing traditional contact tracing interviews with an instantly accessible, comprehensive record of past contacts.”

With most public events canceled due to current ‘Stay at Home’ recommendations, two YSPH graduate students, Tanya Yajnik, MPH ’20, and Yuwen Qiu, MS ’20, created Agora Good Life, Inc., a mobile application designed to increase energy among young people through high quality, affordable, and convenient interactive virtual events. Intended to mitigate loneliness during periods of physical distancing, potential events include such things as online yoga studio classes, social dance instruction, and group cooking sessions.

The innovative application (currently under development) uses a “growth mindset driven” algorithm to encourage users to get out of their comfort zone and try new experiences. Yajnik and Qiu intend to host original livestream events via Agora Originals and promote future live performances through Agora Pop-Up once physical restrictions lift.

The two students also hope to expand the app to include “The Little Shop” of retail that will allow people to buy clothes and apparel related to their Agora experiences at boutiques and other businesses, such as yoga pants for yoga events, personalized aprons for cooking classes, and dance shoes for tango prácticas.

Lastly, Yajnik and Qiu have been in touch with the Coalition for Health Innovation in Medical Emergencies (CHIME) at Yale and intend to include a feature on the app that allows people to donate funds for personal protective equipment (PPE) for local hospitals.

Yajnik praised InnovateHealth Yale for the guidance it provided during the app’s crucial development phase.

“InnovateHealth Yale has been incredibly helpful in providing both funding and coaching to our team,” Yajnik said. “We are grateful for their support and mentorship. We are looking forward to the launch of the Agora Good Life event app soon!”

In another social enterprise project, YSPH student Shadrack Frimpong, AMPH ’20, is seeking to address the financial struggles of those in need of health care through his novel initiative Cocoa360.

A non-profit venture that has helped cocoa farmers in western Ghana build schools and a medical clinic using community-based financing, Coca360’s innovative programs earned Frimpong a Muhammed Ali Humanitarian Award last year. He was one of only six winners to be so honored around the world.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Cocoa360 is helping eight rural communities in Ghana use their communal farm revenues to eliminate all clinical user fees and provide free treatment for respiratory tract infections. The initiative, entitled COVID Preparedness & Outbreak Prevention Plan or CoCoPOPP, focuses heavily on public health prevention and control measures, while actively connecting potential disease cases with the nearest health facilities, which are in urban locations about 3-4 hours away from rural areas.

Frimpong would like to expand Coca360’s community financing model across Ghana and around the world to improve health outcomes and eliminate common barriers to health care such as health insurance premiums and clinical fees.

“I consider it a great privilege and a truly humbling opportunity to be able to ensure that others do not face the health challenges that my family and I have faced due to financial barriers,” said Frimpong, who grew up in Ghana.

Frimpong will be pitching the merits of Cocoa360 and CoCoPOPP during Startup Yale as a finalist for this year’s Thorne Prize.

Since its launch, InnovateHealth Yale has awarded more than $300,000 in startup funding, coached over 200 Yale students and funded 40 start-ups. Those start-ups have gone on to receive more than $10 million in follow-up funding.

“Now more than ever, we need creative, intelligent, and passionate public health entrepreneurs,” said Fatema Basrai, assistant director of InnovateHealth Yale and innovation manager for the Sustainable Health Initiative. “Through individual coaching, professional mentorship and funding opportunities, IHY is committed to supporting students as we work on current and future public health challenges.”

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on April 16, 2020