Entrepreneurs examine global health innovation

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

The three women sitting on Monday’s public health innovation panel had one thing in common: None of them had planned to be entrepreneurs.

Yet there they were, discussing global health and social entrepreneurship in front of an audience of mostly public health graduate students. The panel included Barbara Bush ’04, co-founder of the Global Health Corps; Jennifer Staple-Clark ’03, founder of Unite for Sight and Laura Niklason, founder and chief scientist at Humacyte and professor of anesthesiology and biomedical engineering at Yale. Rounding out the group was Georgia Levenson Keohane ’94, who moderated the conversation.

Bush, who majored in architecture at Yale, said she became interested in global health after taking a course on AIDS and society as an undergraduate. She embarked on a service trip in the summer after her junior year during which she witnessed “thousands of people waiting in the streets” for medicine. Then, she said ,she returned to Yale and focused almost exclusively on global health courses during her senior year.

Bush eventually helped start the Global Health Corps. The decision to create a new organization, she said, was only made after Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, urged the group to do so. Personally, Bush said, it also came down to wanting to influence greater change.

“Yes, it’s incredible to work with one person,” Bush said, “But if you can truly change the system, that’s even more incredible because you can affect thousands of people.”

The Global Health Corps maximizes its impact in two ways: by aiding as many patients as possible, and by boosting the careers of its fellows so that they may rise into positions of power and make changes through their influence. The organization has quickly gained popularity and is now extremely selective in choosing new Fellows — according to Bush, only two percent of applicants are employed for the yearlong program, and these hires come from all over the world.

Staple-Clark’s and Niklason’s respective organizations also had humble origins, with Unite for Sight beginning as a student group out of Staple-Clark’s dorm room, and Humacyte as a small organization supporting what was originally a “lunatic fringe” idea. Now, Unite has served over 1,700,000 patients and hosts the world’s largest annual global health conference, and Humacyte has three clinical trials in the works.

The road to success has not always been easy and there are still challenges to come, the three panelists agreed.

“You iterate and you’re in a lab state for years. It doesn’t get easier,” Bush said. For instance, the Global Health Corps recently had difficulty getting health insurance for employees in Burundi, she said.

Niklason, who was trained as a scientist, commented on the unforgiving nature of the start-up world. In science, a researcher can designate a hypothesis without worrying too much about whether or not it holds true — but in entrepreneurship the potential for failure must be detected and assessed as early as possible, she said.

All three women praised the University for its influence in their day-to-day work. Bush and Staple-Clark both credited Yale with aiding them in creating their respective organizations by encouraging critical thinking about important issues and providing spaces and resources for the organizations’ programming.

Although Humacyte got its start at Duke shortly before Niklason relocated to New Haven, Niklason commended Yale for its emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration.

“We’re not pigeonholed into little places, which means that those collisions can occur, and innovation happens much more naturally,” Niklason said.

It has been easy for her to reach out to different departments and groups on campus to work together on various projects, she said.

Caroline Rivera ’16 said in an email that she enjoyed the event as an opportunity to hear from pioneering, entrepreneurial women in the field of global and public health and to network with students at the School of Public Health.

“It was comforting to know that [the panelists] were all in the same place that I’m in now, an undergrad looking for something to do with life that combines passion with service,” Rivera said in an email.

The panel was hosted by the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and InnovateHealth Yale.

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