The 2019 Scholarship Winner

Kevin Tyan

Harvard Medical School

Award:  $1,000

November 1, 2019

The Data Group team is pleased to announce Kevin Tyan as the winner of the 2019 award of The Data Group’s Annual Technology Scholarship for $1,000. Kevin, who attends Harvard Medical School, was selected from a pool of 50 candidates.

Kevin’s essay stood out to us; we were moved by his work and how much he’s accomplished in his education so far. Expertly crafted, with personality and emotion, we all learned something from his essay– you only need to read it yourself to see the exceptional work that Kevin has done and how he will be at the forefront in his generation implementing positive change using technology.

Congratulations, Kevin!

Tanner’s Winning Essay

My breath fogged up against my faceplate, adding to the nearly opaque layer of condensation. Gravel crunched beneath the soles of my thick rubber boots as I followed the doctors through the isolation ward. We broiled in layers of protective yellow polypropylene as the Liberian sun-scorched mercilessly above. I reached toward my face to adjust my mask, only to earn a sharp reprimand from the lead doctor. In the red zone of this Ebola Treatment Unit, his word was law.

We began the decontamination process to render our suits safe to remove. The spray of cold chlorine solution was a brief respite from the sweltering heat, but I noticed how unevenly it was applied. The hygienist drenched my torso with bleach but failed to notice that my inner arms and neck were left unsprayed and contaminated. Fortunately for me, Liberia was in the waning months of the Ebola outbreak. For those who served during the height of the epidemic, improper decontamination had contributed to countless fatalities.

I was in West Africa to field-test my invention: a tool that improves decontamination. I never expected to invent something in college, let alone start a company. So when Columbia launched its Ebola Design Challenge, I was hesitant to participate – inventing a solution for the Ebola crisis seemed completely out of my domain. However, I decided that the potential to help doctors and nurses on the front lines was worth straying from my comfort zone. My idea was simple: give health workers a tool to clearly visualize the process of decontamination. My team and I thus created “Highlight,” a powder that colorizes bleach with a blue tint and illuminates to workers where they have properly sprayed. We designed the blue indicator to then fade away when disinfection is complete. Developing Highlight became my obsession, and I often found myself rushing back to my dorm room between classes to test out new iterations of the formula. My free time was spent reading chemistry journals, writing grants and patents, and constantly staining my hands blue. That winter, we incorporated our startup as Kinnos Inc, and made our first sale to the NYC Fire Department. A year later, I found myself in Liberia testing Highlight with Ebola fighters.

I will never forget the moment when they tried Highlight for the first time. To both my immense relief and the gleeful surprise of the hygienists, gloriously blue bleach jetted out the sprayer and marked every surface it hit. Everyone clamored for a turn with the sprayer and marveled at how safe they felt to be able to completely spray each other down.

But the joy I felt from watching my invention capture the hearts of these workers was short-lived, as we began to discover chilling lapses in protocol at the treatment centers. At one Ebola Treatment Unit in Ganta, I was initially dismayed to find that Highlight was not properly fading away in the bleach solution prepared for us by the local workers. This led to our discovery that because the workers had been given incorrect measuring utensils, the bleach was improperly prepared at less than half of the intended concentration. This led us to a startling conclusion: throughout the entire outbreak, workers had been attempting decontamination with ineffective, overly diluted bleach. Without introducing Highlight, this problem would not have been diagnosed.

Our field-testing at a major Ebola Treatment Center in Monrovia yielded another sobering finding: when workers sprayed each other with Highlight, they found that the blue indicator had penetrated their PPE suits and stained their underclothing. In the months of their service, the staff had noticed wetness after spraying with the transparent bleach but assumed that this was from their sweat. Now, the blue stains on their skin were undeniable – throughout the outbreak, staff had been given non-waterproof PPE suits, thus unknowingly exposing themselves to the virus. This center had seen some of the highest rates of healthcare worker infections in Liberia. Introducing Highlight to the Ebola outbreak has translated to tangible, life-saving changes in protocol. The color-changing properties of Highlight revealed grave errors in protocol that had undoubtedly contributed to transmissions during the outbreak.

Through the rest of my time at Columbia, I helped secure a $650K grant from USAID, traveled to Guinea and Sierra Leone to field-test and educate Ebola aid workers, and was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Healthcare. Highlight Sprays has now been used in Liberia, Guinea, DR Congo, and Haiti in the context of Ebola and cholera disinfection training, and is currently used by NGOs, laboratories, government agencies, and hospitals for training and routine disinfection. I have continued to devote myself to combating healthcare-associated infections. After raising a $1mm investment round recently, I helped expand the Highlight technology to bleach wipes, which is currently being piloted in major hospitals. Highlight has also been adopted by major institutional customers, including Doctors Without Borders, which is currently testing the technology in the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo to protect its staff. I have also significantly contributed to this academic field, publishing five peer-reviewed papers in top infection control journals in the past year. I helped Kinnos file four patents on the Highlight technology, which was recently selected for the 2018 Patents For Humanity award, the USPTO’s highest humanitarian honor.

Through this entire experience, both my perception of the healthcare field and my self-expectations have evolved. Initially, I viewed the physician’s role as the important, yet singular task of healing patients. Now, I see that I can contribute to medicine not just by treating my patients, but also by devising solutions to challenges in healthcare. Few are better equipped than physicians to live through and diagnose the shortfalls of the healthcare system. I hope to join the medical profession not only to treat people and save lives, but to also improve the methods and tools for the field itself. As a first-year student at Harvard Medical School, I am eager to combine my entrepreneurial spirit with rigorous training in medicine to continue to innovate and improve the lives of those in low-resource settings.