June 20, 2024

The program develops Yale students’ interest in innovation to solve global health challenges through collaboration, creative methods and business approaches.

Fareed Salmon

3:28 am, Mar 29, 2024

Ellie Park, Photography Editor

With the Sustainable Health Initiative Venture Development Program, undergraduate and graduate students alike are finding new ways to initiate their own global health innovations. 

Based out of the Sustainable Health Initiative, or SHI, at the Yale Global Health Institute, the Venture Development Program helps undergraduates and graduate students make their health startups a reality. In collaboration with TSAI City, the program supports the development of innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing health issues. This spring, there are 12 teams participating in the program. 

“It can be very scary and daunting to just pull a company out of thin air, especially when you’re a student,” said SHI Venture Development Program fellow Rod Bravo, who helps mentor each team. “Having a sense of belonging and structure that we have been building here allows us to appropriately support global health venture creation.”

SHI was founded in 2019 by Sten Vermund, the former dean of the School of Public Health, to create a space that combines global health work and the University’s innovation ecosystem. 

The initiative quickly partnered with businesses and incubators in India. After SHI identified a few entrepreneurs with potential global health ventures, they sent them to India to work with incubators and scale their projects, said Terese Chahine, a School of Management lecturer in social entrepreneurship and an advisor at SHI. 

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The SHI held a mini-speaker series and continued to offer mini-grants for students’ projects. As the pandemic continued, SHI leaders decided to take the program in a new direction.

“We started to think about how we could nurture global health innovation without necessarily traveling,” said Fatema Basrai, the managing director of SHI. “So that’s when we started kind of focusing more on the Yale community, particularly student-led global health innovations.”

In the fall of 2023, SHI developed a new cohort system. After students apply to the program with potential start-up ideas, they get paired up with one of the two student fellows, who provide each team with guidance and advice. 

The program also has other perks. They have a speaker series where those with global health start-ups share their own experiences. It also houses mentors-in-residence, like Emily Sheldon, the co-founder of the African Health Innovation Center, who offers students additional counsel. 

“I think this cohort model has been helpful and successful,” Basrai told the News. “We’ve gotten good feedback from the students that they really enjoy coming together in person, learning from a speaker, and getting time to get to know each other.”

Bravo said that students enter the program with their startups at different stages of evolution. While some students are still developing a business plan for their project, others already have prototypes and are ready to attain additional funding.

“Fostering that seed to become someone who could be an entrepreneur — that in and of itself, I think, is part of the University’s responsibility,” Bravo said.

Braeden Cullen ’27 is a co-founder of Spinertia, a startup that uses AI to give athletic trainers and medical professionals a visualization of live spinal movements, who also participates in the program. For him, the diversity of expertise in the startups has created a collaborative environment.

“Biotech ventures specifically are really difficult to get off the ground,” Cullen said. “There’s a really high knowledge barrier that stops a lot of people from going super deep. SHI makes it a lot more approachable.” 

SHI can access faculty and resources from the School of Public Health and the Institute of Global Health. They have also collaborated with Yale Ventures and InnovateHealth, which have helped offer intellectual property protection and pitch competitions. 

For Basrai, though, TSAI City has been crucial to the development of the Venture Development program, helping participants learn how to pitch an idea or build a financial model. 

“SHI Innovators are able to benefit from the whole ecosystem, where they’ll get a seed grant from InnovateHealth, then they’ll go to an accelerator workshop at TSAI,” Chahine told the News. “And then they might partner with faculty and get advice from YaleVenture. Each one builds on what the other one does.”

Still, the SHI ventures go beyond the development phase. Many go on to make a real-world impact on society. Developed by Blake Robertson SPH ’24, “Upkeep,” for example, is a comprehensive database that uses AI to provide a better health experience for older adults. He has since interviewed the geriatric community and connected with state government Medicaid offices to gain resources and improve the efficacy of his product. 

MiChaela Barker’s SOM ’24 SPH ’24 developed “Matcha Scrubs,” which produces satin-lined scrub caps that are designed for people with different hairstyles to promote diversity in the medical profession. Sooah Park ’27 created “SHED,” an app that seeks to use videos and interactive exercises to provide culturally conscious sexual education. Clara Guo SOM ’24 MED ’24 developed “Lucid. Care,” a behavioral health diagnostic and monitoring platform. 

“A lot of the founders that are coming out of SHI consider the needs of local and global communities,” Bravo said. “It has all been formed by what the people of this community need, whether they’re patients, whether they’re elderly populations, and the list kind of goes on and on.” 

As the program looks to the future, Bravo said he hopes it will expand to a full-year cohort. Chahine, the SOM lecturer, also wants the program to support more ventures that respond to lived experiences. 

“We want to begin supporting individuals who don’t have the academic expertise or the network or the funding or the research that someone at Yale would have,” Chahine said. “Can we think about using Yale to impact the rest of the world that can actually allow Yale students to impact others globally?”

Applications for the SHI Venture Development Program’s fall 2024 cohort will open next semester. 


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