Startups sprouted in Israeli design contest are now recruits in the COVID-19 war

In January, an Israeli design competition awarded prizes to teams of creative young minds for solving problems in the fields of health care and public health. A few months later, the coronavirus pandemic is putting the contest’s proposals into real-life trials.

Called Time to Care, the Tel Aviv-based competition is backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Tel Aviv’s largest hospital, Sourasky Medical Center. It took place on January 8-9 — before the global outbreak — focusing on how creative design thinking can boost stagnant areas of healthcare and public health.

The winning teams are now pushing their projects forward as full-fledged startups, with one important new goal: they are focusing their energy on providing public health solutions for the COVID-19 outbreak. Their efforts are being supported by the WHO, Sourasky, and MindState, an Israeli-American startup that hosted the event.

January’s overall competition winner, EnRoute, brought home the gold with its proposed solution for hospital patient transportation. Analyzing Sourasky’s Ichilov Hospital it found that 1,400 patients are moved daily within medical facilities, from building to building, with an average transfer time of 36 minutes.

To increase efficiency, the team proposed combining transportation and navigation services with safe, hygienic hospital practices — to create a sort of Uber service for the in-hospital movement of patients. The system would also enable hospitals to get access to real-time as well as historical data on the movement of patients, giving them the ability to respond to logjams and emergencies quickly.

EnRoute at the final presentation of the Time to Care program, January 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

Now, after a successful proof-of-concept run with Ichilov Hospital, EnRoute has recalibrated toward tracking and moving coronavirus patients, tests, and respiratory machines.

“By providing tracking data of in-hospital transportation and equipment, we can help contain the spread of infected persons and equipment more effectively,” said Ori Shelma, EnRoute co-founder and a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

One of Shelma’s American partners, EnRoute business lead and Cornell Tech MBA student Tony Liebel, is equally optimistic about EnRoute’s benefit in the age of COVID-19.

“EnRoute is uniquely positioned to assist hospitals globally to better understand the locations of both contagious and ‘clean’ patients,” said Liebel. “By knowing these locations and having the history of where they have been in the hospital, EnRoute can retroactively determine who a contagious patient may have infected once they have been tested.”

Deputy director-general of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto judges the final EnRoute presentation at the Time to Care contest, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

While the startup was conceived of in Israel, collaboration continues across borders as the team swiftly moves to deploy its product.

“EnRoute is applying for multiple COVID-19 government grants, in Israel and in the United States,” Liebel said. “We are trying to rapidly bring this product to the hospital operations that need it most.”

Time to Care awarded a second top prize, on behalf of the WHO, to Essential (previously titled Eshe), a project that proposed a solution for refugee health problems.

As refugees arrive at global WHO clinics without medical information, the team developed a convenient and secure digital “health card.” Holding vital health record data, the card would be stored in the cloud, accessible in multiple languages and available wherever the patients sought treatment.

The Essential team with Dr. Dorit Nitzan of the World Health Organization (second from right), Prof. Ronni Gamzu, CEO of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (third from right), and Henk van Assen, (second from left) and Tamar Many (left), MindState Co-founders, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

The project has now expanded its scope beyond refugees and to all vulnerable populations.

“With the world in the midst of a global pandemic, where vulnerable populations are most at risk, improving access to healthcare records is a desperate need that we are determined to address,” said Essential co-founder Leif Reinert, an MBA student at Cornell Tech.

“Every day, now even more amplified because of the public health crisis, people are dying due to errors in treatment that could have been prevented if more information was available to care providers,” he added.

For Essential, continuing to work with the WHO is vital to its success.

A photo from the Time to Care competition, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

“Having the World Health Organization as a partner is a critical piece in making Essential a reality,” Reinert emphasized.

Dorit Nitzan, director of Middle East and European emergency preparedness at the WHO, agreed.

“The two [winning] ideas are things we need in the World Health Organization’s emergency program,” Nitzan said of EnRoute and Essential. “If developed in the right way, we have a bright future together.”

Outside of the winning projects, others ideas developed at Time to Care were successful enough to garner interest as innovative public health solutions to global contagion.

The Skinly team tests their garment prototype, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

Emergency Preparedness, a joint project between Cornell Tech students and Israeli designers, aims to use medical data to geo-map the precise risk of specific neighborhoods and locales, helping to contain outbreaks. Skinly, meanwhile, which has Cornell Tech and Technion students as well as an Israeli and a Dutch designer, is tackling hospital-acquired infections through a unique full-body suit that would decrease the transfer of bacteria. Both projects are continuing development.

The competition teams, intentionally multidisciplinary and multinational, were composed of over 100 engineering and MBA students from Cornell Tech and the Technion, alongside local Israeli designers from companies such as Facebook, Waze and Wix, as well as healthcare workers from Sourasky and its Ichilov Hospital. This mix of Americans, Israelis, academics and professionals was instrumental in the creation of the solutions, the competition organizers said.

The Skinly team constructs their garment prototype, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

“It is clear that many of the wicked problems that surround us cannot be tackled by individuals alone,” said Henk van Assen, a Yale professor and co-founder of event host MindState. “Our model allows for students and professionals from diverse backgrounds to bring their best thinking and acting, and respond to some of society’s most complex challenges.”

For Prof. Ronni Gamzu, CEO of Sourasky Medical Center, this proved useful for the types of problems he faces at the hospital.

Judge Ronni Gamzu at the Time to Care competition, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

“We need innovation,” declared Gamzu. “The hospital is a very complex operation. We have challenges in medical, clinical and operational services. We need to rethink our services, and we need fresh minds to do so. Here, we have a goldmine of them.”

WHO’S Nitzan agreed regarding the efficacy of the model. “I’m used to being around same-minded people, all with the same dogmas, where it’s very hard to think outside the box,” she said. “Here, you bring people from other experiences, other fields, cross-continent, cross-sector, and, importantly, young. While we are used to saying ‘it’s not good, it can’t work,’ this generation literally brings hope.”

Nitzan also praised the effort of the participants — some of whom were visiting Israel for the first time yet forwent enjoying Tel Aviv’s attractions in order to work toward the greater good.

Dr. Dorit Nitzan, center, with team Essential at the Time to Care competition, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

“Sitting here in this beautiful city, with the Mediterranean Sea on the horizon, they are here inside, working nonstop, thinking about others,” Nitzan said.

“They are dynamic, enthusiastic, and really understand what they are looking for — even without an answer, they keep looking. This is the most important thing in innovation,” said Gamzu.

While these projects started off tackling problems in the abstract, they now find themselves facing a daunting real world public health crisis with a lot on the line.

“We are helping them quickly transition from ideation to implementation, combining the competition’s idealism with pragmatism necessary at this moment,” said Tamar Many, MindState co-founder and professor at Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.

MindState co-founder Tamary Many, center, speaks with Time to Care participants, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

WHO’s Nitzan is convinced of the groups’ potential.

“Our goal is to save three billion lives over the next five years globally,” she said, “where one billion will be by preventing, treating, preparedness and responding to emergencies. The tools we are seeing here hopefully will help save part of this one billion.”

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Written by Aakash Malu


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