The Setting: A fancy restaurant in midtown Manhattan
The Timing: A brisk early evening in April at the Women in the World Summit
1) Ting Shih, social innovator and founder of ClickMedix
2) Lauren Shweder Biel, social innovator and founder of DC Greens
The Instigators: A couple of glasses of red wine and a few bottles of beer
The Result: Magic, chemistry, the birthing of an idea that can help turn obesity, diabetes and food deserts upside down for low-income Washington, DC residents
This is a tale of the power of collaboration – of what happens when two smart, passionate and committed women who are trying to change the world around health access get real and unguarded about their business challenges and build together in the spirit of community and sisterhood.
On June 1st, the founders of ClickMedix and DC Greens combined forces and launched their big innovation – a mobile app and digital platform that allows low-income, Washington, DC residents to redeem vouchers prescribed by doctors for fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets. Both ladies would be the first to admit that these types of voucher programs exist in other cities. What they would say does not exist, however, is the kind of technological pairing that allows for cross-sector collaboration and data analysis – a key piece of the empowerment formula that many government, clinical and nonprofit agencies trying to transform health services are hungry for.
Most don’t think data is sexy.
But Ting and Lauren would beg to differ. They believe their technology just may be the key to understanding and solving the problem of food access on a city scale while linking health clinics to the services that their patients desperately need.
“Our tool allows healthcare innovation to be where the customers are,” says Ting. “Today, we’re focused on food, but if we get this part right, we can expand and help drive the kind of behavior that can transform the health industry.”
More on the Players
Lauren Shweder Biel loves food – and bright, green, leafy vegetables and juicy, sweet fruits are always front and center on her family’s dinner table. She believes deeply that everyone should have access to fresh, healthy, nutritious foods, no matter their income level or street address. Lauren began fulfilling this mission about seven years ago when she founded the first farmers’ market in her Glover Park neighborhood. She then went on to found DC Greens, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with city-wide organizations like the DC Department of Health to create a healthier DC food system through food education, access and policy support.
Four years ago, DC Greens helped the D.C. Department of Health launch DC Produce Plus and the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, the main cores of Lauren and Ting’s collaboration. DC Residents who receive SNAP or WIC or even Medicaid are eligible to participate and receive $10/week in checks to spend at local farmers’ markets. The programs have been widely adopted with a $1.2 million investment by the city this year and enthusiastic participation by more than 50 farmers’ markets that appreciate the new customer base and doctors who feel empowered having a tool that can help patients follow their advice.
Despite this success, Lauren was struggling.
“Our collection methodology was really old-school and analog. Like many agencies, we were using paper, pens and volunteers to hand out vouchers and collect data. We had a huge bottleneck with lines of hundreds of customers waiting to get their checks and prescriptions filled.”
“We needed help moving into the 21st century,” she says.
Enter Ting Shih, also DC area-based, and a computer scientist whose passion centers around using technology to build efficiency across health services. While Ting was a graduate student at MIT, she developed ClickMedix, a tool to help health organizations deliver digitized services like telemedicine, home care and remote diagnosis with mobile phones or tablets. How does it work? Patients or health workers take photos of an injury with a smartphone and send to otherwise inaccessible specialists for treatment advice. ClickMedix is currently being used in 16 countries worldwide for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of patients.
Most recently, ClickMedix began working with DC area-based clinics to manage and improve health outcomes of diabetic patients. With Ting’s tool, healthcare workers, primary care physicians and specialists are able to collaborate with each other and provide easy-to-understand treatment plans for patients, including ones focused on diet and healthy food options.
Ting’s big dream is a world with one-click health care accessibility for patients and efficient processes for physicians and health service workers to better utilize data and serve patients quickly and cost-effectively.
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More on the Collaboration
Ting and Lauren sat down with drinks in hand after a long day of inspiring talks at a Summit designed, ironically, to bring women change agents together. While each were honorees at the Summit – they had both won Toyota’s Mothers of Invention Award and had spent the day and dinner sitting near each other – neither realized that their interests were so aligned and that such a partnership would bloom until this evening when guards came down and tongues relaxed.
So what is the innovation exactly? Participants of DC Produce Plus and the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription programs will now receive a membership card, which they can get and redeem at all participating markets around the city, reducing wait times for customers and allowing administrators to quickly analyze thousands of lines of data and track market patterns in real time.
Lauren says, “With our app, we can see that some shoppers are traveling across the city because nothing is nearby. So I can tell a farmer that it will be profitable to set up shop in a low-income neighborhood that they have previously written off. And I would have the data to back it up.”
“We’re also building in prompts that will help with the synchronization of data across healthcare stakeholders and support the analysis of programs like WIC and SNAP,” Ting adds. Right now, only a small fraction of the $220 million that SNAP participants receive in D.C. is spent at farmers’ markets. “But our tool incorporates intelligent prompts that remind SNAP participants that they can use these benefits at the markets. We think these kinds of built-ins will help increase usage rates of other city programs at farmers’ markets.”
A plethora of studies confirm that women entrepreneurs often have less access to capital than their male counterparts and suffer from various forms of gender bias as they try to scale their enterprises, but when women entrepreneurs pool their resources together, and tap into their collective creativity and genius, suddenly, these disadvantages disappear, and big ideas are able to grow and thrive.
As Lauren says about her collaboration with Ting, “Ting and I approach the problem of food access from two very different perspectives, but if together, we can better illuminate a new perspective on the problem, it means we all benefit.”
Imagine the possibility of all DC residents having fresh fruits and veggies on their dining tables each evening. Now imagine it for all people in the region. Now for all people in the country…
Yes to sister collaborators, yes.