Hello, folks! It’s me, Spiffy, the interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with the latest scoop on entrepreneurs making a difference in healthcare for everyone around the world. Today’s rockstar is Sara Al-Zubi, the chief operating officer of VATARA!
Spiffy: Welcome, Sara! What does VATARA stand for, and what challenge is it addressing?
Sara: Thanks, Spiffy! VATARA stands for Vacuum Assisted Therapy Affordable for All. Did you know that, worldwide, road traffic accidents, natural disasters, and war cause more than 15 million open fractures and countless complex wounds every year that need urgent medical attention?
Spiffy: Ouch! That sounds like a major problem to me.
Sara: Indeed it is. In fact, if poorly treated, these injuries can result in disability, amputation, or even death. In the West, the gold standard is to treat complex wounds with negative pressure wound therapy, which uses a special pump to apply gentle suction to a wound, thus keeping it clean and promoting healing. However, this pump costs nearly $40,000.
Spiffy: That’s a lot of zeros for one wound! What motivated you to tackle this problem?
Sara: For me, access to high-quality healthcare is a human right. The right to live a healthy life with access to life-saving treatment is part of our moral and social duty to our fellow neighbors in the world. I have the privilege of getting my education at Harvard Medical School, but I originally come from Jordan and was born in Malaysia. I have seen and lived in different places with different healthcare systems. Those experiences have made me love the world and the planet we live on. When I saw these high-quality devices being used in the best hospitals in the world, I thought to myself, “Why can't anyone that ever needs this have access to it?” How do we overcome the financial issues? The answer was VATARA, which is less than $100.
Spiffy: What a huge difference! It sounds to me like this is how your team at VATARA is working towards a more equitable world, yes?
Sara: You nailed it, Spiffy. For us, we created a device that is 400 times cheaper than the current industry standard. In addition to that, our model is to sell to middle-income countries that can afford our few-hundred-dollar VATARA pump and use the revenue we make to donate VATARAs to low-income countries. It's a model that allows us to expand access to the rest of the world, especially to the poor and most vulnerable. It allows us to get people back on their feet.
Spiffy: Tell us about a recent milestone by your team at VATARA. What impact does that make?
Sara: We earned second place in the Harvard President's Innovation Challenge, a competition with nearly 600 teams. We won a $25,000 prize, which will allow us to build more VATARA pumps impacting the lives of tens of thousands of patients that are injured across the world.
Spiffy: Congratulations to you guys! I also like to invite each entrepreneur I interview to share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from this?
Sara: Throughout this process, we have run into many difficulties with how to make our product better. This required us to have many discussions about what we can research or try making through prototypes. At times, it felt like we would never find a solution. However, we kept simplifying our goals and that helped us to re-center. So, when you're in doubt, I recommend that you take a step back, review what you are working on, and put it into new words. Try to talk to others about it as well, because sometimes a breakthrough can come from just having a fresh pair of eyes and ears view it for the first time.
Spiffy: What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently?
Sara: Love is the answer. I have a nine-year-old brother who has taught me what it's like to love and be caring. He consistently goes out of his way to make kids feel welcomed at school. We recently had a disagreement in our family and he was a source of light. He was an active listener and at the end said, "We all have to remember that we love each other here." I think it's so beautiful to hear that from a little kid, because it is the true premise of our existence on earth – to live and to love. I see this in the hospital all the time. As a medical student, we see lots of pain and medical tragedies. However, it is beautiful to see how we come together to care for others and share the love by providing the best possible healthcare.
Spiffy: Thank you for sharing that with us. Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Sara: We live in a world where access to healthcare has become a privilege. We do not want that to be the case at VATARA, which is why we united to make access to certain devices accessible. This is especially important for the world's poorest and most vulnerable.
Spiffy: Very inspiring, Sara! Thanks again for joining us—it’s been a pleasure!
Sara Al-Zubi is an MD/MPP student at Harvard Medical School. Sara grew up in the Midwest, graduated summa cum laude from Miami University, and was a Truman Scholar. Sara is passionate about global health work in the Middle East. This work has led her to start her own nonprofit, the 3Sisters Foundation, which is currently working on a Yemen Healthcare Initiative. She is also the former U.S. Ambassador for Humanitarian Affairs to the United Nations. Sara is the co-founder and chief operating officer of VATARA. (Nominated by Alex Parks at Harvard Innovation Labs. First published on the Ladderworks website on May 31, 2022.)