Innovators Share Paths to Successful Health Enterprises

What does it take to create a successful health care venture, something that changes peoples’ lives around the world by improving their well being?

Three leading health innovators Monday described how having a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, committed and talented colleagues, personal resilience, management skills and, sometimes, a bit of “chutzpah” have helped their organizations become international in scope.

Barbara Bush and Jennifer Staple-Clark, both Yale graduates, and Laura Niklason, a Yale professor, each shared their personal story about creating a dynamic health-centered organization, along with some of the pitfalls that they have surmounted.

For Staple-Clark, BA ’03, global health entrepreneurship began inconspicuously in her Yale dorm room. She was working in an eye doctor’s office in Connecticut and became aware that many people were suffering from glaucoma. Staple-Clark recruited fellow Yale students to work with her to improve their access to health care.

Her fledgling organization, Unite for Sight, started gaining attention. Inquires, first nationally and then internationally, came from people who were intrigued and wanted to be part of an organization that was focused on helping the world's poor. Today, Unite for Sight  has provided eye care to nearly 1.7 million people, including more than 65,000 sight-restoring surgeries.

InnovateHealth Yale (IHY) and the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute sponsored the Women in Innovation panel. The 90-minute discussion drew a near-capacity audience to the Yale School of Public Health of students interested in how social and health entrepreneurship can be harnessed to improve human health.

“These three women are exemplars for anyone who wants to promote health using innovation, entrepreneurship and forward thinking,” said Martin Klein, M.P.H. ’86, Ph.D., IHY’s director and associate dean for development and external affairs for the School of Public Health. “One of the goals of IHY is to provide role models for Yale students, and the presenters and moderator do just that."

IHY was created last year to encourage Yale students to utilize entrepreneurship to address pressing health issues around the world. The program will award the Thorne Prize this April, providing $25,000 in seed capital to nurture a student health idea with particular promise.

Bush, ’04, is CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps, which seeks to mobilize leaders and build momentum to improve health equity. The organization forms partnerships between its fellows and health organizations around the world to inspire innovative health solutions. The Global Health Corps currently has fellows in Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, the United States and Zambia.

Bush said that she became intrigued about —and then committed to— global health after taking a course about the AIDS epidemic while an undergraduate. A trip to Africa cemented her interest and Bush dropped her architecture studies and enrolled in global health classes.

“I never set out to be a entrepreneur,” said Bush, the former first daughter. “But I became pretty obsessed with global health issues.”

Her organization has since sponsored some 320 global health fellows worldwide. This year’s fellows will come to Yale this spring for several weeks of intensive training before heading to their country destinations. Bush said that the Global Health Corps looks for people from widely different backgrounds--accepting about 2 percent of applicants--and  that they allow the organization to be shaped by the ideas and energy that the fellows offer.

Niklason, Ph.D, M.D., a professor at Yale in biomedical engineering and anesthesia, founded Humacyte, a biotechnology company that seeks to create and implant engineered tissues, such as blood vessels, to help patients recovering from a range of diseases. If successful, the technique could revolutionize medical treatment for many who are sick.

When she started the company in the mid-1990s, it was viewed by some as being on the “lunatic fringe” of science. Today, Humacyte's tissues are being testing in clinical trials.

Despite this progress, Niklason told the gathering that success remains difficult to define because the process has been so drawn out and new challenges and goals continue to emerge.

“It [success] is a receding horizon,” she said.

For Bush, success ultimately will be measured by whether Global Health Corps fellows become health leaders in their respective countries. The organization is still very young and such accomplishments take time. “We don't have one shiny, clean number to present to funders,” she said.

In response to a question from moderator Georgia Levenson Keohane about how they have dealt with setbacks along the way, Niklason admitted that there have been times when she thought that her venture would go no further, whether because of financial, technological or personnel challenges. She said that having a longer view of her goals, 10 to 20 years out, makes smaller hurdles easier to navigate.

Each speaker also credited Yale, in part, for the success of their venture, either by developing the analytical tools they use to manage their companies, or by providing a vibrant scientific environment that fosters collaboration across disciplines.

“I adored my time at Yale as an undergraduate,” said Staple-Clark, who continues to work closely with the university and with Yale students, who volunteer to contribute to Unite for Sight’s success. “They come up with such great ideas.”


This article was submitted by Denise L Meyer on March 4, 2014.

Women in Innovation panelists include (from left to right) Laura Niklason, founder of Humacyte; Jennifer Staple-Clark, CEO of Unite for Sight; Barbara Bush, CEO of Global Health Corps; and moderator Georgia Levenson Keohane.

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Martin Klein

Senior Advisor, Dean's Office