By Brita Belli
Three Yale women (and one Yale woman moderator) came together to discuss their startups and successes in a March 3 talk on Women in Innovation cohosted by YEI and InnovateHealth Yale. Georgie Levenson Keohane, a fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, author of the book Social Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century and Yale alum, moderated the discussion, saying at the outset: "I get to learn about the work of people who are changing the world." Those people included Barbara Bush, CEO and cofounder of Global Health Corps; Jennifer Staple-Clark, CEO and founder of Unite for Sight and Laura Niklason, founder and chief scientist of Humacyte and professor of anesthesiology and biomedical engineering at Yale.
Following Their Inspiration
Bush originally planned to major in architecture at Yale. But a course on AIDS and society changed her path. "I became obsessed with global health issues," Bush says, adding that she travelled to six countries in Africa to see the AIDS crisis first hand and returned with a new commitment to public health. Though she had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur, Bush says the model of what she wanted to join--essentially a Teach for America aimed at public health--didn't exist. The idea behind Global Health Corps is to create fellows that work for a year in countries of need and go on to assume leadership roles at Ministries of Health and other high-level government and nonprofit positions.
Staple-Clark began with a student group at Yale that worked to connect people with free resources to receive regular eye care in order to avoid glaucoma and blindness. That chapter drew interest at other schools nd Staple-Clark created a standardized model for schools to create their own Unite for Sight chapters. Meanwhile, a man in an Internet cafe in a refugee camp in Ghana discovered Unite for Sight online and emailed her about how her organization might help them. Soon, she had connected with an opthamalogist in Ghana and began working with clinics there that see 100-300 patients a day.
Niklason, representing the only for-profit venture among the panelists, wanted to form a new device to help patients. "What struck me is that so many people who are sick are sick because their blood vessels are sick," Niklason said. She wanted to grow new arteries for patients out of human cells, because replacing arteries in surgergy with veins or plastic tubing is fraught with complications. In the mid-'90s, Niklason says, growing arteries was considered "the lunatic fringe." But 10 years ago, she had successful results growing arteries from animal and human cells and her startup, Humacyte, was born.
Bush talked about the way the fellows accepted into Global Heatlh Corps help to shape their programs and the need to iterate constantly as a startup to stay relevant. And both she and Staple-Clark talked about the importance of collecting and analyzing data in order to understand the effectiveness of their programs.
"We're very focused on measuring outcomes," says Staple-Clark. "We don't measure how many surgeries, but the pre- and post-surgery data to make sure the surgeries were sight restoring."
To maintain the effectiveness of their programs, both panelists discussed the need to stay focused on their goals. "People want to fund something that seems audacious every single year," Bush says. "But most important is the quality of work that fellows do."
Niklason says the rules for success vary dramatically between the private sector and the academic lab. In academia, methodical science is prized. But, she adds, "At the end of three to four years of investigation you might find out your hypothesis is wrong." In the private sector, she says, the mantra is "fail early."
Working in both worlds, says Niklason, has made her smarter--better at managing teams and enunciating clear goals and timelines.