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How a quest to combat malaria moved from student concept to business plan

Andrea Gibson | Jun 18, 2015
Ohio University senior Noah Rosenblatt will travel to Guyana this summer with colleagues to explore the next steps in their entrepreneurial endeavors.
Ohio University senior Noah Rosenblatt will travel to Guyana this summer with colleagues to explore the next steps in their entrepreneurial endeavors. Photo credit: Ben Siegel/Ohio University.

Noah Rosenblatt knew that he wanted to be an entrepreneur. But he couldn't have predicted that his entry to the startup business world would involve mosquitos.

Thwarting the malaria-carrying insects with environmentally friendly tools is the heart of the idea that won him the Ohio University Outstanding Student in Innovation Award in March 2015. Out of a field of nine contenders, Rosenblatt's business model for using eucalyptus wood pellets to neutralize mosquitos in Guyana rose to the top.

“It was definitely the highlight of my year,” says Rosenblatt, an Honors Tutorial College student majoring in business administration.

The story started with another Ohio University competition, the Global Health Challenge, where Rosenblatt and his student collaborators Kate Clausen, Morgan Stanley and Seth Baker landed first place with the idea. The concept was inspired by their work in the Global Leadership Center, where the students learned how to use business strategies to solve international issues for projects in Jamaica, Vietnam, Ecuador and Germany.

Although the first-place prize at the Global Health Challenge was thrilling, Rosenblatt notes that the student team initially didn't pursue the concept further. A few months later, however, Rosenblatt was nominated for TechGROWTH Ohio’s Outstanding Student in Innovation Award, and he submitted information about the Guyana mosquito plan.

To his surprise, he was called to the Baker Center Ballroom stage on March 31 to accept the honor before a room of more than 250 university and regional inventors and entrepreneurs. The student award was one of five Innovation Awards announced by TechGROWTH Ohio, a public/private partnership administered by Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Those 15 minutes of fame created a domino effect of interest in the mosquito control business plan. Rosenblatt and his teammates filed a provisional patent on the concept, took meetings with TechGROWTH Ohio about how to cultivate funding for the plan, and scheduled a trip in August to Guyana to conduct some initial feasibility research on the scientific concept. The project has garnered interest outside of Ohio; MIT has invited the students to its national inventors challenge in spring 2016.

“Winning the Innovation Award propelled the project forward. That’s when people noticed,” Rosenblatt says.

None of the students is a scientist—they're majors in business administration, political science and communications—but Rosenblatt says that the team is working with experts in biological sciences to test the foundations of the mosquito control concept.

Malaria is prevalent in South America, but the problem became more acute in Guyana after broken dams flooded parts of the country, Rosenblatt explains. The stagnant water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes.   

As part of the original Ohio University Global Health Challenge, the student team reviewed existing research on the issue, focusing on how natural processes could be leveraged to control mosquito populations. They queried faculty and companies and drew on resources at the University Libraries to develop the proposal, Rosenblatt says.

The students will journey to Guyana in August to conduct field research. The key question is what ratio of eucalyptus wood pellets to water is required to wipe out the problem mosquitos. The team also must determine if there are any negative effects on other aquatic species that could dampen the proposal.

“The end vision is that we’ll have a variety of these pellets that can be used in different water sources that can be used to knock out a variety of mosquito species,” Rosenblatt says.

In addition to exploring the scientific practicalities of the concept, the students will draw on their international studies and communication skills to build relationships with partners in Guyana, says Clausen, a senior communication studies major. The trip will include a needs assessment, focus groups and discussions with community leaders, she says.

“If you come in with a solution without talking to anyone, it never works,” she says.

TechGROWTH Ohio also will provide business and capital access planning support to the students, as it has assigned an Executive-in-Residence to the project, said John Glazer, director of the program. This isn’t the first time that TechGROWTH has worked with Rosenblatt, he noted. The student was part of a business plan competition called the Clean Energy Challenge that made it to state finals, and Rosenblatt also is operations director for the student club Ohio University Consulting Fellows, where he took on some TechGROWTH projects.

As for the Guyana project, Clausen and Rosenblatt are optimistic about its future, as they are encouraged by the support they’ve received from the academic and entrepreneurship communities to date.

“A lot of our support comes from our ability to speak with people outside of our networks—leveraging school and faculty networks, even cold calling,” Rosenblatt notes. “You’d be surprised at some of the responses.”

Looking back, Rosenblatt is grateful that the Global Health Challenge and Innovation Award pushed him and his teammates out of their comfort zones and prompted them to work through any barriers they encountered.

“Every morning I wake up and think, ‘What can I do today?’” Rosenblatt says. “I know it’s a long journey and a bit of risk, time and money-wise, but it’s something I believe in.”