Loic Assombo, A&S ’15, was awarded first place in the Social Entrepreneurs Envisioning Development (SEED) competition last Tuesday for his plan to develop a smartphone app to spread awareness about life-threatening diseases to countries in Africa.
SEED, part of the larger BC Venture Competition (BCVC), will provide Assombo with $2,500 in funding to refine the app that he created last summer through the Global Enterprise for Medical Advancement (GEMA), a non-profit that he founded to address pressing healthcare issues in Africa.
“That fact that I will be able to use this app to empower people to recognize things that are killing them frequently and give them actual medical suggestions that they can do from home to start taking care of themselves is huge,” he said.
Assombo’s project was inspired by his own experiences with the problems that he wishes to combat. As a young boy he and his family left their native Cameroon, a country of 20 million people on the central-western coast of Africa, for the U.S. in search of better health care for their mother.
When he was six, Assombo’s mother suffered a stroke. Because there were few hospitals nearby, Assombo’s family spent three days trying to raise money to get her the care she needed. During that time, his mother stayed at home without access to a doctor and with no idea of her current condition.
“Once we finally got to a hospital, it was overcrowded and inefficient, so we traveled here to get healthcare,” he said. “I’ve always been bothered by the fact that we had to travel across the world just to get healthcare for one person.”
In Cameroon-and throughout Africa-there is a shortage of doctors, a lack of adequate medical facilities, and insufficient medical resources. For every 10,000 people on the continent there are just two physicians. Africans have an average life expectancy of 60, and Cameroon has a life expectancy of about 52.
Assombo, who majors in biology, said that GEMA has identified three issues that are at the center of the problems surrounding the continent’s healthcare-inadequate doctors, few hospitals, and scant resources.
At the SEED competition, five competitors pitched their business plans to a panel of judges for 15 minutes and then answered judges’ questions.
Assombo said a key factor in the judges’ decision to award him first place was that he had already developed a prototype of his app and brought it to Africa to get feedback from doctors and hospitals.
Last summer, while working for Think Big, Dream Big-a Boston-based organization that helps high school and college students develop solutions to pressing issues that face their communities-Assombo developed the prototype app.
“I wasn’t sure if doctors would approve of it, if people in Cameroon would even know how it works, and if it was something that people were willing to try,” he said.
Assombo decided to apply for grant funding to finance a trip back to Cameroon for the first time since he had left 12 years earlier. While he was there, he showed his app to three hospitals, eight doctors, and representatives from telecommunications companies.
Everyone he met was with impressed, and especially praised the app’s educational components. Assombo relied on information about illnesses and diseases from the Mayo Clinic to integrate into the app.
Mobile phone use in Africa has increased rapidly in recent years. It is now estimated that there are about 253 unique subscribers on the continent-roughly 31 percent of the total population-and that number is largely expected to increase.
“The mobile app is supposed to mitigate healthcare issues by empowering the average person who is not a healthcare professional to be able to recognize, diagnose, and use preventative care techniques against the top five illnesses that are killing Africans,” said Assombo, who developed the app with assistance from his high-school friend and GEMA partner Adriel Mingo.
The app aims to educate users by providing them with a list and an interactive video of symptoms of illnesses common in Africa. Assombo said education and awareness are crucial components to empowering Africans to recognize illnesses and to adopt preventative measures.
With the $2,500 in prize money, Assombo hopes to refine some issues with the app and apply for official non-profit status under the U.S. tax code. In the coming months he plans to attend conferences, work with incubators, and apply for additional grant funding.
“It’s more than just the money, it’s also the mentorship,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get this far just with money. It took a lot of mentorship.”