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Rita Wilson Grant Fund supports student innovations

March 28, 2024
by Fran Fried

Six student-led ventures have received this year’s Rita Wilson Grant Funds in Support of Innovation and Entrepreneurship from InnovateHealth Yale (IHY).

The fund was created in 2019 with a generous gift to the Yale School of Public Health. The money is awarded annually to student-led ventures focused on social innovation in public health and education. The fund provides sliding-scale grants to student-led organizations working on innovative solutions. The recipients were:

  • Upkeep: A comprehensive resource database empowered with conversational artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline support access for older adults and their family caregivers. Upkeep will offer monthly plans where users will be given a personal care coordinator who will provide health care navigation, administrative task assistance, and weekly check-ins. Principal: Blake Robertson, MPH ’24 (Health Care Management).
  • De-Stress: A personalized mental health care and productivity app that guides students and professionals in managing daily stressors with the help of an AI buddy. The idea of a “buddy” is to convey the mode of operation; a conversational and interactive friend that is capable of recognizing an overwhelming situation and then offers to help right when you need it. Principal: Arinze Agu, MD, MPH ’25 (Environmental Health Sciences, Climate Change & Health Concentration.)
  • MakeDeathsCount: A global health data non-governmental organization (NGO) that conducts verbal autopsies and develops mortality surveillance systems in low- and middle-income countries – and countries ravaged by war – through partnerships with ministries of health and other NGOs. Principals: Ahmad R. Saleh, MD, MPH ’22 (Epidemiology/Biostatistics), and Ehsan Abualanain, MPH ’22, (Global Health).
  • Lucid.Care Labs: A mental health diagnostic and monitoring platform that provides longitudinal patient data to inform clinical decision making. It does this by building a comprehensive database of real-world evidence from self-reporting, digital biomarkers, online behavior, sociodemographic data, and biological tests. Principal: Clara Guo, MD ’24, MBA ’24.
  • Protecta Clothing: A startup that seeks to create an innovative pant for older adults that includes protection for the hip and coccyx. Protecta pants are unique as there is no product on the market currently that provides hip protection with a comfortable and modern look for older adults. Principal: Julian Fuentes-Loza, MBA ’24.
  • Magenta Mind: A pending NGO that will confront the pervasive mental health crisis in Syria, a consequence of prolonged conflict marked by collective violence and displacement over a decade. Principal: Mansoorah Kermani, MPH ‘24 (Social and Behavioral Sciences).

“I’m thrilled to support these student-led innovations with the Rita Wilson seed grants!” said IHY managing director Fatema Basrai. “The future of public health is deeply tied to how much we invest in creative, innovative, and equitable solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.”

It was honestly not so much about the fund itself and what it meant for our projects, but more so for the validation it came with.

Ahmad R. Saleh, MD, MPH '22, MakeDeathsCount

One recipient that is finding creative, data-driven innovations is MakeDeathsCount, founded by Ahmad R. Saleh, MD, MPH ’22 (epidemiology/biostatistics), and Ehsan Abualanain, MPH ’22 (global health). MDC evolved from their work on mortality surveillance in March 2022 in the lab of Kaveh Khoshnood, MPH ’89, PhD ’95, associate professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases). He suggested that they look into developing a verbal autopsy (VA) training project in war-ravaged northwestern Syria after he was approached by a colleague working for a Syrian NGO.

Saleh approached Abualanain about forming an NGO to train health workers to conduct verbal autopsies, and to standardize the practice and implementation of VA methods. They received guidance on how to set up their NGO from Yale’s Tsai CITY’s Accelerator program, and applied for – and received – a $150,000 Bloomberg Vital Strategy grant from the Bloomberg Foundation.

In August 2022, to assist in data analysis, they brought on board Madison Novosel, MPH ’23 (chronic disease epidemiology), now the lead program coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Health and Human Services. In September 2022, Saleh and Abualanain traveled to Turkey to train health workers to conduct VAs in northwest Syria, which has been torn apart by civil war.

Abualanain said MDC’s pilot project in Syria was a success, with over 600 interviews conducted. She also said VA projects are in the pipeline for India and Ethiopia. But currently, the team’s main focus is on Somalia, and identifying the causes of maternal mortality there. To date, MDC-trained workers have conducted 50 VAs in rural areas of the country to prepare for a mortality surveillance project; Abualanain said that once funding is secured, they will implement a pilot phase with 500 interviews.

Both principals were thrilled at receiving the Wilson grant, which will go toward software development, testing, publication, and marketing.

“This recognition not only honors our efforts, but also reaffirms the importance of our mission in improving mortality surveillance in low- and middle-income countries,” Abualanain said. “We are deeply grateful for this acknowledgment and are motivated to continue our efforts towards our goal of making every death count.”

“It was honestly not so much about the fund itself and what it meant for our projects, but more so for the validation it came with,” Saleh added. “Trying to develop the world’s first and only organization dedicated to improving mortality surveillance worldwide comes with its set of unique challenges. It becomes unclear at times if we will succeed in our mission despite our best efforts. But to see this kind of support provides that much-needed boost for us.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on March 27, 2024