Hult Prize

A group of UW-Madison engineers accept a challenge to reduce non-communicable diseases in urban slums.

By Brian Paulus Photos by Jenny Demeules Print Design by Jason Wan
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Imagine you are entering a global healthcare competition against ten thousand other teams, all competing for a million dollar seed and worldwide recognition. The winners will be interacting with millions of people and becoming key players in the everlasting struggle to improve global health. The guidelines for your fame and success are as follows: reduce chronic non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, in urban slums. Good luck.

Four brave UW-Madison engineers, Bimpe Olaniyan, Cedric Kovacs-Johnson, Eric Ronning, and Jon Seaton, have decided to embrace this challenge. At the time of writing, in February, they have made it to regionals. This has placed them among merely three hundred of the previous ten thousands teams, but soon they will be competing for nationals. Olaniyan and Ronning are seniors in mechanical engineering, Kovacs-Johnson is a senior in chemical engineering, and Seaton is a graduate medical physics student who was also an undergraduate in engineering. Although their class schedules are hectic, they still manage to find time to partake in school-wide competitions, such as Innovation Days and the Schubert Writing competition, which frequently result in great success. This involvement and ambition has given each of them a very broad skill set, which they plan to utilize in this project, in addition to the abilities they have developed through their engineering experiences.

With their vast background involvement, these students now look to apply themselves in trying to attain the Hult Prize. The global competition places a strong emphasis on developing sustainable business ideas in order to attack this healthcare issue. This attracts many businesspeople and makes their team of engineers an outlier. However, Kovacs-Johnson goes on to explain that “what really made us unique was the first day we said we’re not going to talk solutions. First, we’re going to wrap our head around the problem and look at the situation as a system.” Not only are they engineers in a crowd of business professionals, but they are also some of the youngest participates competing for the Hult Prize. Olaniyan justifies the program’s support for younger minds by saying, “When you’re younger, you’re more reckless in terms of trying to do something you think is easy.” One of the great things about this competition is that it not only fuels the crazy ideas of a younger generation, but it also tries to show that there is a business in helping people, so long as it is done properly and sustainably.

It’s about making health a part of a daily mindset instead of an emergency solution

Bimpe Olaniyan

Given minimal information and a lot of enthusiasm, how does one approach the distressing questions and uncertainties associated with NCDs (non-communicable diseases)? This team of engineers has managed to combine social interactions with efficiency in order to view the urban slums systematically. What goes into the system, and what comes out of the system? Not surprisingly, the issues associated with NCDs extend far beyond the daily habits of smoking, consuming alcohol and unhealthy diets. Factors such as doctor training, cost of drugs, available resources, and existing infrastructures are all part of the issue. “The underlying problems with many slums are actually social issues,” Ronning elaborates. “If we can provide a care that they can be accepting of, that could be extremely powerful.”

While they have crafted a genius solution to reduce NCDs, they want to test it out firsthand prior to revealing their proposal. The group plans to take a trip to Brazil in March to test their potential solution and attain an even stronger understanding of how they can optimize the system. While searching for answers, they have been astounded by the extensiveness of the UW-Madison social network. The willingness of UW alumni to provide their time and resources has been inspiring to the team because “every Badger is looking to spend that time with someone generations apart,” according to Olaniyan.

Although the team is initially focusing on Brazil, they have projected that their efforts will affect approximately twenty-five million people by 2019, assuming their methods are successful. If they advance to nationals, they will be spending the summer in an accelerated program in the Clinton Global Initiative Business Incubator. Once there, they will have the opportunity to work with many influential figures and further develop their solution. Regardless of whether they advance to nationals or not, they are very eager to see if their proposal can save lives in the real world. As Ronning eloquently puts it, “An artist wants nothing more than to have their work be seen. A writer wants nothing more than their work to be read. An engineer wants nothing more than to have their work be implemented.”