there's an app for that

New app gives Houston hospital a better shot at giving COVID-19 vaccinations to employees

This Houston hospital is tapping into tech to best optimize its COVID-19 vaccination process. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson

Across the country, millions of people eagerly await their COVID-19 vaccinations. But many of them are encountering a big roadblock on the path toward eradicating the pandemic: scheduling their shots.

To overcome that hurdle, some organizations have turned to technology. San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, for instance, will let customers schedule COVID-19 vaccinations through a web-based scheduler. As with H-E-B's app, many vaccination-scheduling tools are just now becoming available.

Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center is one huge step ahead of the vaccination curve, though. Back in September, the hospital — part of the massive Texas Medical Center complex — started planning how it would roll out vaccinations for its more than 21,000-member workforce. As part of that planning, MD Anderson developed an in-house app enabling its employees to schedule their own vaccination appointments.

"We have an incredible team of informatics developers who worked in conjunction with our human resource and employee health leaders to design an app that's accessible on your phone or from any computer," says Dr. Welela Tereffe, chief medical executive at MD Anderson. "The app feeds you information about what appointments are available and then floats an appointment reminder to your calendar as well as sending you text reminders."

Beginning December 15, MD Anderson employees received the hospital's initial round of shots. They were the first employees who used the app to schedule appointments at workplace vaccination clinics. As of January 5, more than 8,700 hospital employees had been vaccinated with the first dose of either the Pfizer vaccine or Moderna vaccine. The immunizations are not mandatory. In all, 10,700 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to MD Anderson since December 14, and every one of them is already spoken for.

Yolan Campbell, associate vice president of HR operations at MD Anderson, says the vaccination scheduling app built on knowledge the hospital's team had accumulated throughout 2020 in producing apps for COVID-19 tests and other pandemic-related purposes.

Tereffe notes that COVID-19 vaccination scheduling has "caused a lot of stress" for health care providers. MD Anderson hoped to avoid that stress by incorporating the app into its vaccination plan.

"The app that that our teams have designed is very simple, very user-friendly," Tereffe says. "It prompts you to put in your preferred contact information, both email and phone. It allows you to choose a block of time and a day that you'd like to be vaccinated. And it puts the information right there at your fingertips about the vaccine and the vaccine clinic process so that you can review it in real time."

As soon as an employee chooses an appointment slot, they receive conformation via the app. Through the app, an employee can cancel or reschedule an appointment.

"I think that level of access and control really helps to reassure people that they can trust the process," Tereffe said.

The app also gives MD Anderson more control over the vaccination clinics, according to Campbell and Tereffe. For instance, a dashboard created by IT professionals at the hospital gathers data from the app to track how many vaccinations have been given, how many appointments have been canceled, and which times and days are most popular for vaccinations. Tereffe said those real-time insights have enabled MD Anderson to adjust the operating hours for vaccination clinics.

To supplement the app, MD Anderson provides extra assistance with vaccination scheduling for employees with language or technology barriers, Tereffe said. The hospital also runs a vaccination hotline staffed by HR professionals.

Looking ahead, Tereffe said MD Anderson will accept any COVID-19 vaccine that's been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So far, that's limited to the Pfizer and Moderna versions.

"We have a process in place to hold unique clinics for each type of vaccine and each dose of vaccine to ensure that people get the vaccine that they have chosen … and that they always get the correct second dose," Tereffe said. "Our intent is to help our employees make informed decisions."

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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