Houston voices

Rice University professor and startup founder talks advocating for change and strategy

Robyn O'Brien joined the Liu Idea Lab of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to discuss how she's found success in advocating for change with her latest startup. Photo via robynobrien.com

Robyn O'Brien, co-founder of rePlant Capital and Rice adjunct professor, joined the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the first virtual Ladies who LaUNCH. RePlant Capital is working with food industry players to invest in resilient and sustainable agricultural practices. She continues working toward her goal to "make clean and safe food affordable and accessible to anyone who wants it."

After receiving an MBA from Rice, O'Brien found herself thrust into the world of food as a financial analyst. Years later when her one-year old child had a severe allergic reaction, Robyn's previous work experience in the food industry suddenly became much more personal. She dug into the data and unearthed injustice hidden in the US food industry, resulting in her book, The Unhealthy Truth. She brought to light some shocking realities about the rise in food related allergies in the US and the double standards of food quality in the US versus other international markets. Companies were selling one product in Europe with wholesome ingredients, while "the same" product in the US was made of artificial ingredients and chemicals.

As a rebel-rousing public figure, Robyn has received her fair share of push back, but she has come out of the storm more resilient and compassionate because of it. Over the course of her hour-long talk, Robyn shared some of the ways that she has been able to advocate for change, as a mom up against industry giants and those with power to silence her. A few of the strategies she has found to be fool proof are:

1. Although her story about the US food market is quite shocking, O'Brien explained that she has lead and advocated from a place of love, not fear. O'Brien reminds us, "The reason we're hurting… is because we love." Whether she's communicating with a national audience or working on a team, Robyn has found success by turning to empathy and encourages us to do the same. Even internally, when there is discourse in her team, she says, "Start with compassion."

2. Lead with data. Despite how personal the issue felt to Robyn and the anger we are justified in feeling about this issue, Robyn continually relies on the data to do the convincing as opposed to an emotional response. "Don't exaggerate… data will tell it's own story." She encourages us to do our homework, know our facts, and walk into meetings confidently.

3. You have to exercise courage daily. ""Courage is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets." And when your internal meter senses something is misaligned, listen to it. There is room for change in departments and large organizations and it takes courage to address these issues. But it also takes courage to recognize the "gut check" and acknowledge when the misalignment is too great, and to walk away.

O'Brien is a great example of sticking to your guns, even when you're up against a global industry. Now, I leave you with the challenge of taking smaller steps – plant seeds of change where you are and advocate for individuals in need.

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This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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