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Students Excel in Maternal Health Challenge

Grad students produce plan for facilitating folic acid distribution in developing world

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April 15, 2011 | by Amy Weiss
The Earth-Team (from left to right: Eneda Hoxha, Toan Phan, Chris Wilmer and Simeon Bogdanov) celebrates the awarding of $10,000 to Chris Wilmer and Ron Appel (not pictured) for their device to help people obtain clean water in developing countries. The device was awarded by the Perkins Coie law firm for their Innovative Minds Awards program. 

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A team of four Ph.D. candidates at Northwestern placed third in the Scientists Without Borders Maternal Health and Nutrition open innovation challenge for their proposal of an incentive-based system of folic acid distribution. 

A for-profit organization would work with local businesses to encourage women of childbearing age to choose enriched products, according to the Northwestern proposal. 

The winning proposal was one of 64 submissions from around the world, and the team will share the Scientists Without Borders $10,000 cash prize. 

The four members of the Northwestern team, called “Earth Team,” work in different disciplines. Toan Phan, is a Ph.D. candidate in international macroeconomics; Chris Wilmer is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering; Eneda Hoxha is a Ph.D. candidate in medical genetics and molecular biology; and Simeon Bogdanov is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering. 

The mission of the team is to “provide innovations to help alleviate health, economic and environmental issues facing poor people in developing countries.”

The award-winning plan would create an intermediary between local businesses and folic acid producers. This intermediary would reach out to micro-financial institutions in developing countries to help highlight potential profitability of folic acid enrichment. It would manage the relationship and transactions between folic acid producers and local food sellers. 

The team said the system will be more successful than previous government or non-profit efforts because, it believes, making folic acid fortification profitable is more economically compelling than relying on the continued goodwill of donors. The task of persuading community members would be delegated to entrepreneurs who understand the local culture.