Spotlight on: Zzapp Malaria

This month we interviewed Arnon Houri Yafin, ZzappMalaria's CEO. This week, Zzapp was named a finalist for the IBM Watson XPRIZE 'AI for Good' challenge!

Tell us about Zzapp? "Zzapp is a startup that has developed an artificial intelligence-based system for planning, executing, and monitoring large-scale and cost-effective malaria elimination campaigns. Our technology consists of an algorithm that processes satellite imagery, climate, and topography data, to tailor optimal strategies for given locations; an app that allocates field assignments to workers, guiding them in the field and enabling them to upload data easily."

What is special about Zzapp's approach? "Zzapp's vision is on the one hand ambitious - full eradication of malaria rather than the current gradual-reduction approach - and on the other hand achievable. Many countries have already eliminated malaria, and with the right interventions, Subsaharan Africa can do too. We use cutting-edge technology, but apply it in the most challenging environments, where smartphones are the most sophisticated, and sometimes the only, modern technology. I like to call it "Artificial intelligence with mud on its boots." How do you monitor and track the impact of your work? "We are operating in a scientific context with high standards for measuring success and a rigorous process of examining results. Generally, the measurements are the decrease in the number of mosquitoes (based on samplings from traps) and a decrease in the number of malaria cases. Like any startup in this field, we ultimately aim to decrease malaria cases in the most cost-efficient way. Currently, we are conducting large operations covering more than 200 thousand people, and while we do not have final results yet, we already know that we were able to detect more than twice as many puddles compared to last year’s operation with a similar budget. In these operations, the cost per person protected is $0.5 (compared to $X of the cheapest alternative), and we believe we can lower the cost further." What was your personal motivation to engage in this field? "I believe that Malaria is the world’s biggest solvable problem. The scope of the problem (over 400 thousand people who die from the disease every year) and the fact that it can be solved - totally solved - is a great motivator. In addition, unlike developing a new medicine, I know that even along the way we are saving lives on a daily basis, so that gives me great satisfaction." What is your advice for Israeli entrepreneurs that want to build companies that address development challenges? "When we started out, we knew we were ignorant, and therefore were prepared to learn a lot, and we know that we are naive but that this naivety is also an advantage because it allows us to take on an ambitious goal. My advice to other entrepreneurs is, first - do it! It is a long journey, with challenges exceeding those of regular entrepreneurship, but it is also very rewarding. My second piece of advice is to acquire a combination of openness and ambition. Be willing to listen to others and learn from their experiences, but don’t downgrade your own approach. A practical piece of advice is not to hesitate to approach experts for assistance. People willingly enlist themselves to good causes, and their insights can be valuable."

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