Lab Dispatches

Dispatch From the Lab: June 2016 — Columbia Startups Working for the Greater Good

The Columbia Startup Lab is about empowering Columbia alums and students to achieve their professional goals — oftentimes, those goals involve making the world a better place. Here, we introduce you to three Columbia startups for the greater good.

Hi everyone — Hayley from The Lab here! Summer is already well under way, and our new Cohort has definitely hit the ground running. As always, I’ll be using my Dispatches from the Lab to profile all of the impressive new companies that we’ve teamed up with this year, so definitely stay tuned!

In this month’s Dispatch, we’ll be taking a look at three new teams from The Lab who are working tirelessly to provide more effective, affordable, and sustainable medical solutions in the places that need them most. Whether it be providing developing nations with surgical training and infrastructure, affordable 911 emergency response networks, or more effective decontamination solutions to help curb the spread of infectious disease, these founders are dedicating their lives to the greater good — and are already making a significant impact!


As the Ebola breakout of 2014 began to make more and more headlines, Jason Kang ’16ENG, Katherine Jin ’16CC, and Kevin Tyan ’16CC, noticed a significant problem with decontamination efforts. The disinfectants being used to contain the outbreak, like bleach and hydrogen peroxide, suffered from a simple, yet significant problem: they were transparent. When dealing with potentially contaminated surfaces, health workers had a hard time determining whether they were fully coated with the clear liquids they were using.

That’s why Kang, Jin, and Tyan founded Kinnos, the company that would create a safe, portable, and effective decontamination product to help curb the spread of Ebola and other infectious diseases. That product, Highlight, is a powdered additive for disinfectant solutions. When Highlight is mixed into decontaminants, healthcare workers can easily visualize which areas have been sprayed. In addition, the powder increases the contact time between the disinfectant and the surface by preventing early evaporation, thereby increasing the probability that the virus is completely killed.

In just a few years, Highlight has won the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge and the Columbia Venture Competition — the Kinnos team has also performed field-testing with healthcare workers in Liberia and Guinea, and has developed a strong relationship with Doctors Without Borders. “Our goal for Highlight is to change the standard of decontamination globally,” says Jin. Kinnos is already well on its way to achieving that amazing goal.

Trek Medics

When Jason Friesen, ’12 MSPH, first started working to improve medical infrastructure in Central and South American countries, he assumed the problem was a simple matter of deficiency in training and equipment. It was while working to provide those resources on the San Diego-Tijuana border that Friesen first developed the idea for Trek Medics, an organization that uses mobile phone-based software to improve emergency care infrastructure in a cost-efficient manner.

Friesen found that communication between medical responders was the chief obstacle to quality emergency care in underdeveloped countries, many of which didn’t have a strong system of landlines. “Even if they had a lot of money and lots of roads,” he points out, “you still need a communication system that alerts first responders when and where there’s an emergency.” So Friesen took advantage of what these countries did have: a network of mobile phones.

Trek Medics relies on the mobile phone-based emergency medical dispatching software Beacon, to connect what Friesen sees as “the four essential components of any EMS system: training, transportation, communication, and management.” The company is providing coverage in the Dominican Republic and Tanzania on a 24/7 basis, responding to over 20 incidents per month. Trek Medics hopes to expand their presence in these countries and form more local partnerships, as well as move into two new locations: Guyana and Mexico. Their goal is to cover one million people by June 2017.

Mission: Restore

Board-certified reconstructive surgeon Dr. Kaveh Alizadeh started Mission: Restore because after decades of volunteering with non-profits abroad, his came to the realization that his charitable work was only a stopgap measure. The countries he visited to provide life-saving surgeries weren’t building local capacity and medical knowledge — and Dr. Alizadeh didn’t know how to effectively help them do it. That is, not until Karina Nagin, ’11SIPA, joined the Mission: Restore team as Executive Director to help build the infrastructure necessary to effectively train surgeons abroad.

Access to safe surgical care is a huge problem that, unfortunately, often doesn’t receive enough attention within the medical world. “Three times as many people die every year from lack of surgical care than from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined,” Nagin explains. “And after working in international development for three years, I was surprisingly unaware of it.” Nagin used the skills she developed at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and her experience at the Clinton Foundation to build virtual and in-person support networks for trainers and surgeons alike in underdeveloped nations.

Mission: Restore holds hands-on training sessions in regions like East Africa, which features some of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world. The nonprofit also provides Telehealth sessions with doctors in New York who provide second opinions and consultations in difficult cases, which can mean all the difference in terms of health outcomes.

The most rewarding aspect of this work, says Nagin, is watching a next generation of surgeons in these areas who are “are young, incredibly dedicated to their communities, and largely female” begin to take control of a medical infrastructure that badly needs their help. Mission: Restore’s goals for the future include to create more partnerships with medical schools and host more events that give young surgeons and doctors the opportunity to share knowledge and network with one another.

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