Tearing Down the Silos between Education, Research and Social Impact

by Charvi Shetty, Founder and CEO of KNOX Diagnostics

What do a farmer from India, a professor in clinical education from the UK, and the creator of the first US makerspace have in common? More than I realized. When the CITRIS Institute headquartered at UC Berkeley nominated me to attend a conference in Paris to tear down the silos between education, research and innovation, I was unsure if I would fit in. As the founder at KNOX, I lead a team developing an asthma management tool with a portable device that captures lung function in asthmatic kids that relays information onto a mobile app for parents to view and act upon, and allow physicians to track asthma severity in between visits. Who was I, a recent graduate and healthcare startup entrepreneur, to be in a room filled with people working in their fields for longer than I’ve been alive? If there was one thing I learned from my experience in Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class at UCSF, it was that I would only discover the answers to my hypotheses once I stepped out of the building and found out for myself.

As I stepped off the plane in Paris, and into the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires (CRI), I saw how this leadership program consisting of 20 participants from all over the world succeeded in bringing together representatives from every corner and field of experience. We were all brought together into this building to develop a better solution in education.

Participants spanned from Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa, China, India, Chile, Columbia, Germany, France, Netherlands, Sweden, Scotland, England and the US. Photograph by Mitch Altman.

Participants spanned from Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa, China, India, Chile, Columbia, Germany, France, Netherlands, Sweden, Scotland, England and the US. Photograph by Mitch Altman.

Throughout the 4-day leadership summit, we shared our learnings and experiences from our own corners of the world. One particular discussion bounced from ways of getting institutional and peer buy-in, to the motivation of those in power, to the ethics in industry, to the availability of prosthetics directly connected to the brain, and somehow to the meaning of life. We all acknowledged that we were crazy, but at least we were all crazy together. As we brainstormed ways to get institutional and peer buy-in, as well dealing with failure, it’s easy to see how these concepts could relate to my own venture.

Lessons Learned Part I:

  • The difference between a good leader and bad leader: a good leader is a crazy person with ideas and followers, a bad leader is a crazy person with no followers.
  • As soon as you start talking about your solution, people think that you’re trying to sell them something. Try presenting the problem and ask them to come up with a solution. Bonus points if you incorporate their solutions into your own and give them credit.
  • The colors red, yellow and orange are universally associated with failure: rather than categorizing health results into red, yellow and green, why not different shades of green?
  • If you want to get a group of parents together in the same room, hold an event on the weekend with free childcare. Emphasis on the free childcare.

The second part of the conference, the Sage Paris Assembly, held by the Sage Bionetworks, consisted of over 200 participants with speakers ranging from a research unicorn like Steven Keating from the MIT Media Lab, the co-founder of 23andMe, Linda Avey, and the creator of the first open source drug discovery platform, Samir Brahmachari. After absorbing knowledge from key leaders around the globe in a lecture hall held at the Pasteur Institute, we were divided into small groups to take our learnings and apply them to the City of Paris.

Perhaps it was destiny for me to be placed into the novel education group over my top two choices of patient-centered research and mapping wisdom of the city. I was once again forced to step out of my bubble and interacted with a group consisting of a Physics professor, a Math professor, a teacher for dropout kids on whom everyone else had given up hope, an Ashoka fellow teaching illiterate kids in India how to read, and a member of the Parisian government administration.

Our task: create a space, on a budget, within a primary or secondary school that sparks innovation. Photograph by Mitch Altman.

During this exercise, I learned that when students in Paris were asked to describe the current school system, they compared it to being prisoners, with teachers being jail guards. A majority of students surveyed wanted a complete reconstruction of the educational system, while the rest wanted a drastic change to the system in place.

When deciding what to place into this space within the school, some of the Parisians started suggesting things like tables, chairs, whiteboards, and art supplies. To this point, I questioned: “How do we know that these are the things the kids want? Why don’t we ask them what they want?” Then when it came down to how to engage parents and spread the knowledge to outside the community, I realized that what we were trying to do was very similar to filling in the boxes for a Business Model Canvas, a visual framework of key business components. The Lean LaunchPad methodology is a startup education program that increases the likelihood of success through a combination of framing a hypothesis (business model design), getting out of the building to test that hypothesis (customer development) and iterating on product development (agile development).

Our “customer segment” were the kids and the value proposition was to empower kids to take control over their own education. We could build “customer relationships” by having open houses in which parents could come in as well as invite journalists and media to events held in the space. We brainstormed ways to get kids engaged, such as by allowing them to hold teaching sessions where they could share knowledge about an area of their interest. We could keep them by granting special access, such as giving kids after-hours and weekend access in exchange for being responsible for other students while hosting “open lab hours.” We could grow the community by having kids involved in the space advocate its successes and invite other kids to participate, as well as invite journalists and media to special events that would allow for other schools to hear about this space so that it could be implemented on their own campuses.

What surprised me the most about this exercise was that towards the end, it was the Parisian government official who suggested: “Why don’t we start with a blank and empty room?” I couldn’t believe how the conversation went from filling a room with all the “standard” classroom supplies, to having a member of the Paris administration suggesting such a drastic change.

Lessons Learned Part II:

  • The Lean LaunchPad methodology can be applied to innovation in any type of education, whether it be a classroom in Paris or even a startup in the healthcare setting.
  • 3 steps for an educational change:
    1. Empower the individual.
    2. Get the family and immediate surrounding community involved.
    3. Create a systemic change by generating awareness in the broader community, so they too know that the power to create a change lies in their own hands.


Charvi Shetty is the Founder and CEO of KNOX Medical Diagnostics. Providing cloud-connected personalized care for asthma patients. http://knox.co/