Population Health

February 25, 2021

Initiative offers supportive mechanisms to spur social entrepreneurship and innovation

Image of students working on a mechanical engineering projectAs a large public research institution with nearly 300 research centers, the University of Washington serves as an intellectual hub for creating innovative and impactful ideas.

Many of these innovations aim to address critical population health challenges, grappling with existing social inequities and seeking to positively impact and address the needs of vulnerable populations.

Despite the clear potential for this work to effect meaningful social change, it is not uncommon for researchers to encounter challenges in obtaining necessary financial support.

Specifically, such social innovations are often incompatible with traditional for-profit business models, making the route to commercialization unclear and access to funding difficult to acquire. These challenges may inhibit impactful work from reaching their intended audiences.

In recognition of this problem, the Population Health Initiative and a number of university partners have committed support to faculty and students whose research addresses critical population health challenges.

Through this bolstering of the social innovation ecosystem, the Initiative and its partners are better able to support and encourage sustainable entrepreneurial activity to help these innovations evolve into viable and practical applications.

The ecosystem-building work currently includes three core mechanisms: The Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship, an undergraduate course in social entrepreneurship and innovation award funding.

Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship

In collaboration with the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, CoMotion and the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, the Population Health Initiative offers an annual Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship Program.

The fellowship program, held for 10 weeks each summer, supports three or four graduate students from various disciplinary backgrounds in creating practical social enterprise models for innovation projects developed by UW researchers.

Each fellow is assigned the task of creating a unique sustainable social enterprise model for one primary project related to improving population health.

The fellows collaborate to lend their different disciplinary expertise across all projects, and are supported by program faculty and staff, as well as mentors and subject matter experts.

Francis Abugbilla, Ph.D. candidate at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and 2020 Social Entrepreneurship Fellow, worked closely with researchers from the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences to create a sustainable business model for PestiSeguro/PestiSafe, a mobile app delivering pesticide safety information in Spanish to support historically vulnerable agricultural populations.

“My research was at the interface between health and agriculture, addressing an important population health issue,” Abugbilla said. “The interdisciplinary nature of the fellowship was paramount in helping all of us write good reports and propose sustainable business models.”

Utilizing his background in the humanities and social sciences, Abugbilla located critical audiences for the mobile application and examined the dialectical differences in Spanish that could challenge the accessibility of the application.

From this work, Abugbilla proposed sustainable business models that would enable the application to be financially supported through state agencies and foundations while effectively reaching its intended audience, Spanish-speaking agricultural communities.

Abugbilla and the other fellows’ final reports presented their respective projects with detailed analysis and business model recommendations.

These recommendations will enable UW researchers’ innovations to not only extend into real world applications, but in such a way that will be sustainable to achieve long-term positive impacts.

Undergraduate course in social entrepreneurship

In collaboration with the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, the Initiative sponsored a five-credit undergraduate Honors course entitled, “Improving Population Health through Social Entrepreneurship.”

The course was held for the first time in spring 2020, providing students an introduction to social entrepreneurship aimed at advancing population health.

The course was taught by Akhtar Badshah, philanthropist and lecturer at the Evans School. Students learned through a series of lectures, guest speakers, case studies, and a group project that allowed students firsthand experiences in social entrepreneurship.

Students collaborated to create their own innovative solutions to address population health issues impacting the UW campuses.

Some of the key population health issues addressed by the initial 2020 class included bridging gaps in student mental healthcare, reducing university carbon emissions, and reducing student housing insecurity.

After researching and creating potential solutions to these population health challenges, students then examined how to implement their ideas in practice.

This entailed identifying investment funds and investor expectations, innovation and stability, and understanding the importance of policy.

Through this comprehensive project, students gained an understanding of the process of social innovation and the essential role that enterprises can play in addressing population health challenges.

Population Health Innovation Award

In collaboration with CoMotion, the Initiative has co-funded several Innovation Gap Fund grants since 2018 to projects that aim to improve population health and accomplish CoMotion’s goal of facilitating research that produces sustainable economic or societal impacts.

The grants provide $50,000 to UW-led researchers to actualize their innovations and attract seed-stage investment to support social entrepreneurship. $40,000 of the funds are allotted for direct project costs for 12 months, while $10,000 is reserved for business development.

“This funding helps researchers develop a sustainable pathway to get their innovations out to a larger audience,” said Laura Dorsey, associate director at CoMotion.

In June 2020, the Initiative co-funded two Innovation Gap Fund grants to Elin Björling, senior research scientist and lecturer in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering, and Kit Galvin, research scientist in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences. Their work addresses teen mental health and agricultural safety, respectively.

“The projects supported by this funding hold the potential to make a difference in people’s lives,” Dorsey said. “These are projects that contribute to the social good and can lead us towards a more equitable society.”