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Trio of socially conscious Emory student entrepreneurs embark on million-dollar quest to serve humanity

July 18, 2018

By Lyle V. Harris, Consulting Writer
ECL Connections Newsletter
Emory University Campus Life
July 18, 2018

From a construction site in south Georgia to a towering castle in western Europe, a trio of Emory students is on a globe-spanning, million-dollar quest to confront one of the most urgent crises in human history – and the Emory community has been with them every step of the way.

Amid signs that global climate change is accelerating, Kieren Helmn, Ryan James, and Jesse Rosen-Gooding have developed the “Vimband,” a wearable device designed to prevent heat stress and related illnesses, as well as to warm wearers in severe cold. Potentially deadly health conditions associated with temperature extremes are projected to become more prevalent in the years ahead.

A miniature heating and cooling unit, the rechargeable Vimband can fit around a person’s wrist, neck, or head – body parts served by major arteries critical to regulating body temperature.

Three members of Vimband team in lab.

Members of Vimband team confer in laboratory: From left: Kieren Helmn, Josh Mendez, and Ryan James.
Photo by Scott King.

The students’ innovation was spurred by the Hult Foundation, a U.K.-based organization that sponsors annual challenges for young people worldwide to create market-driven, socially conscious business solutions for intractable problems, especially those that adversely impact low-income communities.

The theme of the 2018 Hult Prize is “Harnessing the Power of Energy” – and the winning team claims a coveted $1 million award.

Rosen-Gooding, 20, a rising second-year student from New Mexico majoring in human health, was instrumental in the original concept for the device.

“Vimband is important because it has the potential to lessen the discomfort and health effects of heat on individuals around the world,” he said while working on a separate research project in China. “The world is only getting hotter, and we need a cooling solution that will not perpetuate this issue. It’s the best solution we can find that takes into account environmental stewardship and protecting the health and comfort of humans as temperatures rise.”

Granted, the prize money is a potent incentive. But the Vimband team members said they were compelled by a personal sense of social responsibility and nurtured by the supportive educational environment that Emory provides for students pursuing their purpose and passions. In fact, their work aligns closely with the university’s mission, which reads in part to “apply knowledge in the service of humanity.”

“I’ve taken a lot of classes at the business school that have redefined what social entrepreneurship means to me.” said Helmn, 21, a rising senior and native of northern England. “I’ve learned that you can have an impact while also being profit-minded. Using creative ways to do good in the world is how I think the next generation of entrepreneurs will act. It’s exciting to be a part of that revolution.”

James, who originally convened the team, is a 19-year-old rising second-year student from Maryland majoring in business and computer science. He created the Vimband name during an early stage of the product’s development, originating from the word “vim” – representing the energy and vitality that the team hopes to provide to users of the device. In addition to the multi-disciplinary process the project has required of them, his team has been gratified by the ongoing assistance they’ve received campus-wide.

Close up of Vimband device.

A miniature heating and cooling unit, the rechargeable Vimband can fit around a person’s wrist,

neck, or head. Photo by Scott King.

A range of Emory organizations have contributed to propelling the Vimband project forward, including the business and nursing schools, Emory College, Center for Ethics, Campus Life, Office of the Provost, and Office of the President, which has made a significant investment in the project.

“These students – together with the faculty and staff supporting them – exemplify Emory’s commitment to using innovation and imagination to address the most pressing issues confronting our world today,” said President Claire E. Sterk. “Their scholarship holds great promise for our shared future. I could not be prouder of them.”

According to James, the university is a living-learning community that uniquely nurtures students’ scholarship and creativity.

“Emory is not a place where you only go to class and learn, and your professors are not only there to teach you, and your student peers are not just there on the sidelines,” he said. “Everyone around you is encouraging you and helping you with the next step in what you’re doing. It feels like we’re more than students to the faculty. It feels like we’re partners.”

Since launching the Vimband project in November 2017, the team has had an impressive run. After winning several high-level business-pitch competitions at Emory and successfully testing an early version of the device in Miami, the team advanced to the regional Hult Prize competition in San Francisco in March 2018.

While initially the team was disappointed by their second-place finish against 59 other teams at the regional level, that wasn’t the end of their journey.

On the strength of their pitch, Emory’s team was eventually selected as one of 10 “wild cards” invited to attend a six-week accelerator round sponsored by the Hult Foundation at their headquarters, a castle outside London. If the team advances, they have a shot at winning the final competition on September 15 at the United Nations in New York.

The team has spent the summer working with Georgia Tech engineers to refine their prototype, while honing their presentation skills and continuing to collaborate with Emory faculty. At every juncture, the student-entrepreneurs have tapped deep wells of experience and expertise.

The team’s real-world research, for example, is being led by Valerie Mac, assistant professor in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Mac plans to study Vimband’s effectiveness on construction workers laboring outdoors in Plains, Georgia, in the sweltering July heat.

Vimband team members Helmn, Mac, and James.

Vimband team members Helmn, Mac, and James. Photo by Scott King.

The four-day pilot study measures skin temperature, heart rate, and activity levels for 16 workers – male and female pipe layers – participating in the test. Alternating subjects’ days with and without the device, Mac will gather their biomonitoring data and interview them about the Vimband’s relative comfort and utility.

“It motivates me to work with students who really want to have an impact and are integrating business, technology, research, and public health.” Mac said. “Their approach – and getting all these departments involved – is exactly what Emory promotes. They’ve reached across various schools and disciplines and that’s what the university wants students to do.”

Wes Longhofer, assistant professor of Organization & Management at the Roberto Goizueta Business School, is among the Emory faculty who have advised the team from the beginning.

“They’re probably the most polished students I’ve ever seen,” Longhofer said. “The kind of work they’re doing is hard even for seasoned entrepreneurs, and to see them keep pushing ahead and redirecting their efforts when they need to is impressive. Their professionalism is incredible and they’re very thoughtful in taking feedback. That kind of humility is rare and admirable.”

Lacking the requisite technical skills, the team also sought help from Josh Méndez, a post-doctoral fellow in the Emory College Department of Physics, who helped the team get started programming the Vimband’s micro-controllers.

“They are so willing to get out of their comfort zone and get to work,” said Méndez, who still fields questions from the team. “They’ve really taken off with this device and I’ve enjoyed watching them make it come to life. No matter what happens, they have a bright future ahead.”

Andrea Hershatter, the Goizueta Business School’s senior associate dean and director of the BBA Program, praised the team for their determination and commitment to ethical business principles.

Employing a “cross-subsidy” business model, the team plans to first sell products in the domestic market. Some of their initial revenues will be used to make the Vimband more available and affordable for populations in poorer nations where people are more vulnerable to the effects of an overheating planet.

“These students are very talented and they’ve galvanized a cross-section of different disciplines at Emory to help solve a social justice issue,” Hershatter said. “We’re super-excited about students who pursue these kinds of ventures.”

David Clark, associate vice president of Campus Life, said his department is working to share the students’ significant accomplishments with the Emory community and the general public.

“Students like these three are the very reason we do the work we do,” Clark said. “They show all of us how to be the best we can be.”

Regardless of the outcome, Emory’s Hult Prize team has been a rousing success. The extensive business connections, insights, and exposure that the students have gained in a matter of months at Emory are invaluable assets that might otherwise have taken them years to acquire elsewhere.

“I had never heard about the Hult Prize before, so this experience has opened my eyes to the possibilities of creating and selling something that impacts people’s lives in a serious way,” James said. “It gives me even more energy. Vimband is the first thing we’ve created, but it’s not the last.”