June 2, 2020 – Three teams with ties to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—Vincere Health, Concerto Biosciences, and SanaRx—were among the finalists in the 2020 President’s Innovation Challenge presented by the Harvard Innovation Labs, and two were awarded prizes.
At the May 21 virtual awards ceremony, 25 teams from across 13 Harvard schools showcased their ventures in five tracks: Social Impact or Cultural Enterprise; Health & Life Sciences; Open Track; Launch Lab X (Alumni); and Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab. The Bertarelli Foundation furnished prizes totaling $510,00, with $75,000 going to each Grand Prize winner and $25,000 to each runner-up. Harvard President Larry Bacow offered congratulatory remarks at the opening of the event, and Matt Segneri, the Bruce and Bridgitt Evans Executive Director of the Harvard Innovation Labs, served as emcee.
Vincere Health—founded by Jacob Keteyian, MPH ’19, Shalen De Silva, MPH ’19, Hadi Javeed, and Trevor Campbell—received the Grand Prize in the Launch Lab X (Alumni) Track, earning $75,000 for their venture. Vincere Health’s virtual care delivery model helps smokers quit with a combination of counseling, remote health monitoring, behavioral nudges, and financial incentives. Through a mobile app paired with a carbon monoxide monitor as well as counseling, Vincere Heath offers patients a custom incentive program. The software and programming can be compatible with many different health devices.
This telehealth model, which has the potential to be applied to a variety of chronic conditions, is timely: with the COVID-19 pandemic, insurer coverage has expanded to accommodate reimbursement for an increasing number of telehealth services.
“Our clients and strategic partners have been eager to roll out our digital tools to keep people out of the clinics and offer smoking-cessation support to reduce the risks associated with COVID-19 exposure, which are higher for smokers,” said Keteyian.
The two credit fellow MPH students—including Katie Klatt, MPH ’21; Nimerta Sandhu, MPH ’20; Puay-Shi Ng, MPH ’20; and Tsung-Hsien Tsai, MPH ’20—with providing help along the way. “Being a finalist and winning the competition in our alumni venture track was a huge honor and a privilege, given the exquisite caliber of all the other participants and finalists,” said De Silva. “We would love for this result to highlight the importance of entrepreneurship and health care innovation coming out of the Harvard Chan School.” The prize money will enable to team to find additional support to meet increasing demand and hire additional permanent employees.
Concerto Biosciences—founded by Adil Bahalim, DrPH ’20, Bernardo Cervantes, Cheri Ackerman, and Jared Kehe—was the runner-up in the Health & Life Sciences Track, receiving $25,000 to advance their venture. Using a patented platform that constructs and screens millions of specific microbial communities, the team aims to discover groups of microbes that work in concert to accomplish important functions in human health—such as promoting the growth of a beneficial microbe or suppressing the growth of a pathogen—as well as in agriculture and industry.
“We are focused on revolutionizing the way the world relates to microbes,” said Bahalim. “We want to harness the power of microbes working together to solve the world’s most challenging problems.”
One example comes from the human skin microbiome, a community of microbes on the skin that collectively protects against pathogens and teaches the immune system not to attack beneficial microbes. “We’ve recently observed that people with conditions like eczema or psoriasis have different skin microbiome compositions—they lack microbes that would otherwise protect the skin,” said Bahalim. “If we discover combinations of microbes responsible for skin health, we can manufacture them at scale and deliver them as therapeutics to people with skin diseases.”
SanaRx, founded by Rick Pierce, Jeffrey Wagner (a former postdoctoral fellow in the Eric Rubin Lab), Fred Mermelstein, and Carl Novina, was a finalist in the Pagliuca Life Lab category. SanaRx leverages synthetic biology and genetic engineering to improve detection, visualization, and treatment of three rare diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. The current standard of care for these diseases requires frequent invasive procedures—such as colonoscopies—under anesthesia, whereas SanaRx products use bacterial genetic engineering to detect the diseases noninvasively, reduce the frequency of invasive interventions, and treat the diseases.
Photos courtesy Shalen De Silva (Vincere Health) and Adil Bahalim (Concerto Biosciences)