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This article was published on July 15, 2016

From Malaria to plant diseases: This accelerator is tackling the world’s real problems

From Malaria to plant diseases: This accelerator is tackling the world’s real problems
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From developing new therapies that treat and prevent disease to helping people in need, Merck is committed to improving health and well-bein From developing new therapies that treat and prevent disease to helping people in need, Merck is committed to improving health and well-being around the world.

“We make the world a better place” – this is what most startups promise.

They use this term, describing how they make life easier, more convenient, less stressful for all the “work-hard and play-hard” Western populations: Apps, gadgets, smart tech solutions enhance the day to day life. One could also say: The best technology available is often used for lifestyle products and services rather than life changing solutions. For some, this might be the exact right way, and there are definitely lifestyle products making day to day life easier.

Let’s just say, there may be a whole lot of areas where the need for this kind of smart improvements is just a bit higher, for example in less developed countries. Even in OECD states, there are areas and target groups that could take a little innovation: for example the fields of environment and sustainability, nutrition, healthcare etc.

The science and technology company Merck fills this gap with a special Accelerator program: In two locations, Darmstadt/Germany and Nairobi/Kenya, startups get office space, funding of up to €50,000, mentoring and access to more than 50,000 Merck experts worldwide. The factors that make this Accelerator special from others is the focus on the pillars healthcare, life science and performance materials; fields which can really make a change for the world’s population on a higher level.

Looking at the Accelerator’s startups shows how much potential these areas hold for innovation. This can be best understood by looking at examples of the first startups from this program.

mosquito Merck

Forget bloodsampling: You can diagnose Malaria with your smartphone camera

Let’s take a look at Matibabu for instance, a startup tackling the problem of malaria diagnosis.

In Africa, commonly known as one of the global malaria hotspots, access to hospitals is anything but easy. To see a doctor one often has to travel for hours, streets are bad and appointments may be expensive. So in case you are not really sure if you are sick, you probably will not take the journey unless it is really necessary. This leads to many people not even knowing that they have malaria, thus not getting the necessary treatment.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), early diagnosis is key to successful treatment of the disease. The WHO reported 214 million malaria cases worldwide in 2015, of which 90 percent were found in sub-Saharan Africa. Starting the treatment as early as possible does not only prevent deaths, it also reduces malaria transmission. This shows the importance of Matibabu’s diagnosing tool for the whole African risk countries.

Matibabu’s solution is a digital one: On a continent where, according to world bank, more people have access to smartphones than to running waters, this seems the logical way to go for. Matibabu, led by Josiah Kavuma and Shafik Sekitto, created an app as well as a special device, which allow detection of malaria via a smartphone camera – no blood sampling needed. This mobile technology holds the potential to make malaria diagnosis as easy as taking a picture – and getting the right care as soon as possible a lot more likely.

Taking a selfie with your plant? You are helping fight global nutrition shortages!

The digital approach to diagnosing diseases is also taken by the startup peat – a german based company which invented the tool “plantix”. Using artificial intelligence, plantix analyzes the pictures taken of a plant to detect plant diseases.

Why does it matter? Because farmers can use this method to find out what is wrong with their plants and vegetables, and how to treat the issue. In reacting timely and in the right manner, farmers prevent huge harvest losses. This is particularly important in agriculture in order to avoid one sick plant affecting a whole plantation.

Merck Phone

Thinking global is key

Examples like these show that big problems can be solved by small teams using technologies we already use on a daily basis.

Artificial intelligence, mobile solutions, virtual reality or even just the smartphone camera are ubiquitous in a lot of countries. They can be all it needs to improve life globally – and make the world a better place for real.

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