July 20, 2024

Having been raised by his grandfather, Blake Robertson, MPH ’24, is keenly aware of some of the issues people face as they got older. So, when the opportunity presented itself, Robertson chose to study gerontology. And, in 2022, he enrolled at the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) with a goal of developing a practical solution to help older adults and their caregivers find the resources they need. The result was Upkeep, an artificial intelligence (AI) platform attached to an extensive database of resources.

“You just tell the AI what your problem is, and it can not only guide you to the right resources, but guide you through the process of accessing them,” said Robertson.

Robertson and the team behind Upkeep are among 12 teams that make up the spring 2024 cohort of the Yale Institute for Global Health’s (YIGH) Sustainable Health Initiative (SHI) Venture Development Program. The teams are mentored by SHI fellows Rod Bravo and Lucas Lu, and collaborate with SHI staff, SHI mentors-in-residence, and the broader Tsai CITY network.

The program kicked off with its first cohort of six teams in fall 2023. The goal was to create opportunities for Yale students interested in global health innovation to come together and learn from each other.

“We noticed that while there was great innovation and entrepreneurship programming and great global health programming, there wasn’t anything that created a space for students working in global health innovation specifically,” said Fatema Basrai, managing director of InnovateHealth Yale and the Sustainable Health Initiative. “The Yale Institute for Global Health is uniquely placed to be able to support these students specifically. Given the number of global health challenges across the world today, we are glad to contribute to innovation in this space.”

The SHI Venture Development Program creates a unique opportunity for those interested in global health innovation. It also highlights the collaboration channels that exist between different facets of the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem at Yale.

The Yale Institute for Global Health is uniquely placed to be able to support these students.

Fatema Basrai, managing director, Sustainable Health Initiative

“Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY) has been an amazing partner in this program,” Basrai said. “The team at CITY actually curated a space on their application for students working in global health innovation. This allowed us to reach a larger number of students and cultivate a diverse cohort.”

Matt Gira and Sade Owoye, staff members from Tsai CITY, said, “We are excited about our continued partnership because it has created another space where ideas flourish, connecting global health with venture development. Additionally, it has sparked innovation across thematic domains and demonstrated the power of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Among the other innovations in the cohort are:

  • Ceramic Water Filters, a delivery method for providing clean drinking water fortified with micronutrients to global populations that are deficient in them.
  • Organ, a countertop device with a sensor that can read someone’s vital signs, cholesterol, blood pressure, and more, and use the results to compound personalized medicine on the spot.
  • Spinertia, a wearable AI technology that generates a real-time, detailed model of the human spine to aid athletic trainers and sports medicine professional in injury prevention and performance enhancement.
  • Matcha Scrubs, which manufactures scrub caps designed to fit health care professionals with diverse hair types and styles.

“As the daughter of a Black OB/GYN, I saw firsthand how my mother struggled to find scrub caps that would fit her hair, whether she wore it in braids, locs, or her natural curls,” said MiChaela Barker, MPH/MBA ’24. “The scrub caps on the market were too small to fit diverse hairstyles and often left hair dry, brittle, and broken due to material that was not moisture retaining and too hot. By having culturally competent and designed scrub caps, all health care professionals, nationally and globally, will not only feel physically comfortable while providing care, but also comfortable in their own skin and culture.”

Bravo and Lu point out that the teams and their products are at varying stages in their development and viability. Some have been in the works for a few years and are at the point where they are raising seed money and the concepts have begun to win awards at Yale and beyond. “That’s one of the most exciting things about these teams,” said Bravo. “They’re wanting to actually go full-time with it upon graduating and see how far they can take it.”

Bravo said only 20% to 30% of the teams make it through the process. “That’s the nature of the funnel of building startups, but that’s kind of the beauty of it,” he said. “Everybody gets something out of it. Some people realize this wasn’t even the right problem that they needed to tackle. And that’s actually a good thing because we’ve accelerated them to their next venture.”

One of the highlights of the program for Robertson is getting to listen to different speakers and learn about their journeys. He cited a lecture given by a recent speaker who launched one startup and is now working on another.

“She basically started this company to solve a problem, and while she was running that company, she realized that another problem was even bigger and started another company to solve that,” Robertson said. “That showed me that trying to find the exact right problem can take quite long. And it takes just being super persistent to get down to the real core of what you’re trying to solve.”

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