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Mealworms win top prize in Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge

16688250746_89f8b0bc36_zTen student teams from universities around the world convened in San Francisco and Berkeley last weekend to pitch low-cost solutions designed to tackle major global health challenges.

With so many pressing global health needs, the 85 submissions to the inaugural Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge were far-ranging: from a mapping application to prevent road traffic injuries, an RFID tracking device to improve immunization rates and a self-administered screening device to identify cervical cancer risk and locate local aid.

Offering a $10,000 grand prize, competition was fierce. Only three advanced to the final competition round, where the student innovators pitched on stage to a judging panel comprised of leaders in global health innovation, entrepreneurs and biotech investors.

Two of the final three teams were comprised of Stanford-affiliated students and fellows. Shashi Ranjan, PhD, and Harsh Sheth, MD, are part of a team of Stanford-India Biodesign fellows who journeyed from Delhi to present their intra-nasal air purification device. The device is designed to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution, which contributes to 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

Stanford medical students Lawrence Cai and Kimberly Souza, neurosciences graduate student Jana Lim and Stanford mechanical engineering graduate student Vikram Chauhan, also received honorable mentions for their device, HandHero, a hand splint that provides young burn survivors access to critical physical therapy.

But – as the judges remarked – the winning team, Elizabeth Frank, Joyce Lu and Gabrielle Wimer, undergraduates at the University of Chicago, took their innovation one step further. Rather than focusing on one specific health issue, they established a social enterprise to build mealworm farms, made out of recycled materials, in impoverished, crowded, urban areas. The mealworms are grown, harvested and turned into protein-rich flour, to be sold to local bakeries, and as fertilizer for community gardens. Along the way, the enterprise creates jobs, provides a healthy and sustainable protein alternative to livestock, and fuels the local economy.

“Our idea was not only to address the health problem of malnutrition, but also to make it a community-centered innovation that brought the site of food production to the community themselves so we were also reducing the cost of food transportation,” Lu said at the event.

They will take home $10,000 in prize funding, part of which will be used to help fund the team's visit to Guatemala this summer where they'll start their first pilot site in the local communities.

The competition was presented by Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health, UC Berkeley's Center for Global Public Health and HealthRoots Foundation for Global Health. It included teams ranging from a group of undergraduate bioengineering students from San Diego to medical and graduate students from Tanzania and post-docs from India.

Previously: Stanford-India Biodesign co-founder: "You can become a millionaire, but also make a difference", The next challenge for biodesign: constraining health-care costs and Following the heart and the mind in biodesign
Photo by AJ Cann

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