Kai and Laura are engineering PhD students at Imperial College. They met last year in Tokyo on the Global Fellows Programme and have since started a social business together.
By Laura Braun
In March 2018, Kai and I attended the Global Fellows Programme run by Tokyo Tech and Imperial College. The theme of the programme was: “Innovation to eradicate poverty” and brought together 40 students who share an interest in humanitarian work. The programme was based in a brutalist student accommodation set in a forest in Hachi-oji, and on arrival we were welcomed with green tea, sake and sushi. Over the course of the week, we heard from guest speakers, participated in team-building activities, and developed solutions to poverty-related challenges.
The cohort was divided up into teams, each of which came up with some incredible solutions, ranging from a fridge-station for reducing fish waste, to an “education bus” that improved literacy rates in Senegal. My team came up with a medical app that allowed health professionals to record disease outbreaks in developing countries, and Kai’s team developed a smartphone microscope for diagnosing diseases. Although Kai and I were on different teams, we saw that our ideas could potentially be merged into one solution; a smartphone microscope that together with an app, would have the ability to diagnose and record diseases. Soon enough, our business idea was born! What we did not know is that exactly one year later we would be pitching this idea and winning £15,000.
Having spent a week with likeminded people, we all left feeling inspired, empowered, and with many new friends. We continued to stay in touch and although the programme was over, the solutions we had developed stayed in our minds. Kai and I often discussed how we could turn our idea to reality, so we started prototyping and after a few slow months, we had a tool that could detect parasites in water.
A few weeks later, we saw a flyer for the Venture Catalyst Challenge (VCC) and decided to apply to the 7-week accelerator programme. We were accepted and thanks to the Enterprise Lab our idea very quickly developed into a focused business: Capta is a handheld microscope that, together with an app, automatically diagnoses parasitic worms in stool samples. Parasitic worms affect 1.7 billion people worldwide, and our vision is to make diagnostics available to everyone in low-resource settings. The VCC allowed us to build momentum for this project, which is exactly what we needed.
After one week of intense pitching, we somehow came out as the winners of the Social Impact track at the VCC, as well as the IGHI Student Challenges Competition! This was a game changer. Winning meant that others believed in our idea, but more importantly gave us confidence to continue our work on Capta. So what’s next? The £15,000, will enable us to further develop our product and test it using real samples in sub-Saharan Africa. The thought that our product could one day be used to diagnose parasitic worms in a health clinic gives is our driving force. Although this achievement is thanks to so many people, our idea was ultimately born in Hachi-oji where the Graduate School provided a space to develop innovative research ideas for poverty alleviation, and for that we are incredibly grateful!