Innovation, Global Health Conferences

Review of Unite for Site Global Health and Innovation Conference 2015

~Written by Sarah Weber (Contact: sarahkweber@gmail.com)

I attended the Unite for Site Global Health and Innovation Conference last weekend which brought together over 2,000 global health and international development professionals, social entrepreneurs and students to exchange ideas and leading practices. One of the best parts of the conference was meeting committed global health professionals with the bonus of connecting with other TWiGH team members and viewers. The conference was held at Yale and participants had the opportunity to enjoy the quaint city of New Haven as well as the snow that fell throughout Saturday. The conference was similar to many other global health conferences I’ve attended but had a unique feel due to its social innovation edge and opportunity to hear from social entrepreneurs competing for the J.M.K. Innovation Prize. The innovation prize was established by the J.M. Kaplan Fund to provide grants to emerging social sector innovations.  

The conference had some very engaging and high profile speakers. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the key-note address by the Honorable Minister of Health of Rwanda, Agnes Binagwaho, MD. She is an energetic women who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, even on controversial topics. She spoke about how Rwanda has greatly decreased its AIDS deaths, which is the fastest decrease ever in the world. She stressed how imperative it is that women have the choice for family planning since “There is no woman crazy enough to say, I want a baby every year”. She spoke about the need to meet people where they are and to move where you are needed most (rather than nice areas with beaches or better amenities). When asked what she would do if she were the Health Minister of the United States, she said she would put parents who refused to vaccinate their children on trial! Lastly, she urged us to work together and unite since “We live in one world, not three.”

Another engaging speaker was Cal Bruns, CEO/Chief Creative Incubationist at Matchboxology who presented on “What Condom Manufacturers Could Learn from Car Designers.” He spoke about a fact that car manufacturers learned long ago, that people are more motivated to purchase a product with a benefit that they want, rather than a product to prevent something they don’t want. He proposed that the condom companies should work on creating condoms with advanced technology such as stimulating beads on the inside of the condom to increase pleasure. Then men would be motivated to use condoms for the increased sensation which would as a by-product help reduce STIs and unwanted pregnancy. It was a different look on condom promotion than I’d heard before, but totally made sense.

The Social Impact Labs, which was the catalysis feature of the conference, brought together social entrepreneurs to pitch presentations about new innovations in front of a panel of judges and the audience in competition for the innovation prize. The innovation pitches ranged from nascent ideas, grassroots projects, to initiatives already underway being backed by large public health NGOs, universities and/or private companies. We heard about innovations ranging from a sex education program in Kenya teaching farmers to spread HIV prevention messages, a movement to create greenhouses in inner-city Baltimore to bring fresh produce to areas lacking produce options, to a project that creates wells to provide safe drinking water at a low cost to prevent arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. The winning innovation was presented by Lucy Topaloff with a company called Miraclefeet which provides high quality, low cost braces for patients with Clubfoot in India. Miraclefeet won $10,000 which will be used to help provide braces to 40+ children. 

Overall it was a motivating and encouraging weekend. It’s always great to meet other public health professionals passionate about improving health and opportunities for disadvantaged populations globally. Listening to all the enthusiastic and motivated young people during the social innovation pitches drove home the idea that: great ideas + passion + commitment = opportunities. These individuals, in collaboration with their networks and connections, are turning ideas into solutions to help the less advantaged. That is inspiring!