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StoryTime Wins 2nd Annual Thorne Prize

April 20, 2015
by Michael Greenwood

Student team seeks to promote literacy and long-term health in New Haven.

When Phil Esterman worked in a local Head Start preschool program two summers ago before coming to Yale, he noticed that many parents had a hard time affording books to read to their children or finding the time to do so.

He also noticed that virtually all parents had cell phones with texting capability.

An idea was born: StoryTime.

Esterman, Yale College ’17, and two Yale colleagues, students Henok Addis, ’17, and Jillian Kravatz, ’17, worked together over the past year to refine an idea that promotes early literacy (and long-term health) by using cellular technology to address the “word-gap” faced by many children in lower-income families.

The innovation impressed a panel of judges Saturday who awarded StoryTime $25,000 as the winner of the second annual Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health. The team will use the money to further develop and implement their intervention.

“The level of competition and quality of ideas this year was outstanding,” said Martin Klein, founder and director of InnovateHealth Yale (IHY), a program at the Yale School of Public Health that sponsors the Thorne Prize and seeks to address health problems through entrepreneurship and innovation. “Picking a winning team was very difficult. StoryTime captured our imagination with the broadness of their vision, the scope of their innovation and their focus on New Haven.”

During the afternoon competition at the Yale School of Management, StoryTime and three other teams outlined ambitious innovations to improve health from New Haven to Ethiopia. A panel of judges from Yale and private industry tested their knowledge and preparation with questions on logistics, marketing and product development.

In addition to StoryTime, three other student teams vied for the prize. Formidably proposed a software platform for securely digitizing and processing data on paper forms, optimized for developing countries; Hapterix, a point-of-care test that non-invasively detects neonatal sepsis, a bacterial infection and leading cause of morbidity and mortality in newborns; and PremieBreathe, a low-cost respiratory aid for newborns in low-resource settings.

The competition for the Thorne Prize was part of a larger, two-day event—Entrepreneurship Across Yale. Students also competed for the $25,000 Sabin Prize (which encourages the creation of sustainable, for-profit businesses) and the $20,000 Yale Venture Challenge (which encourages entrepreneurship and supports the growth of startups at Yale). Student teams across Yale’s schools also competed in an audience-judged competition dubbed the Tuna Tank.

Social entrepreneurship has a long history at Yale, Klein told the gathering, and the number of competitions over the weekend suggests that student interest is growing quickly. While student approaches varied widely, a common thread connected them: they all seek to use social entrepreneurship to address disparities in health and other areas.

With capital from the Thorne Prize, Esterman said that StoryTime would be able to reach thousands more people in New Haven and do so far sooner than expected.

In the coming months, the team will concentrate on in-person focus groups and interviews in New Haven nonprofits and preschools. They will also expand a long-term pilot program from 50 parents to 800 and get feedback to learn what kind of content parents—and children—like best. Additionally, the team will study how to keep parents committed to the reading program and growing their content base by working with storywriters to develop more original material.

“We want to bring stories to the hundreds of millions of families without books or Internet, but with mobile phones. By text, we can recruit parents as their kids own best teachers,” Esterman said. “Our goal is that, around the world and right here in New Haven, poor kids aren’t set up to fail before they even start preschool.”

StoryTime texts original short stories to parents who then share the content with their children. This is supplemented with activities that parent and child do together. The program is not meant to replace traditional storybooks. Instead, it is a resource that promotes literacy and reading for families who can neither afford to buy books or do not have ready access to libraries.

Esterman and his teammates explained the “word gap” and its insidious effects on literacy and health to the judges. By age four, many children from lower-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than their peers from families of professionals. It shows the enormous disadvantage poor kids face before they’ve even started preschool and puts all later achievement gaps into better perspective.

Being able to broaden the reach of StoryTime is validation for a year of intense work to get the program started.

“It’s the most welcome support— like someone’s got our back,” Esterman said. “And we’re so proud that Yale and the School of Public Health are fighting for parents right here in New Haven, that Yale’s research and ideas can build a stronger start for the kids living just a few blocks away. We couldn’t be more grateful to be part of it.”

In addition to the Thorne Prize, IHY supports entrepreneurship to address problems in health and education by sponsoring summer internships, hosting speakers and workshops through the academic year and it is in the process of developing a course in social entrepreneurship in conjunction with the management school.

Last year’s winning team—Khushi Baby—has made great strides. The team is developing a necklace for infants that contain a chip with all of the individual’s health and vaccination records. The information can be read—and updated—with a smartphone app and allows medical professionals to avoid traditional written medical forms, which are often incomplete or inaccurate.

Khushi Baby has active collaboration in India, where the necklace will be introduced. Team member Ruchit Nager said the device would be in use in 100 locations by early summer. It will expand from there.

“People are excited about this idea. We think this really has potential to grow and do great things,” Nager told the gathering Saturday.

Donna Dubinsky, a member of the Yale Corporation, provided closing remarks and traced her own entrepreneurship back to a childhood lemonade stand. She went on to become president and CEO of Palm, Inc., and worked at Apple in a variety of capacities

She said that Yale has come far in promoting entrepreneurship and that there is tremendous opportunity to make a difference, particularly in health-related fields.

“It is such a thrill to be an entrepreneur. The impact you can have on the world is really amazing,” she told the gathering.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on April 20, 2015