Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Unity Farm Sanctuary – A Community Benefit Startup

Recently I was speaking to Nick Dougherty, managing director of MassChallenge HealthTech, the digital health accelerator in Massachusetts. After analyzing hundreds of startups, he concluded there are three types of companies:

1. Transactional – Buy my product.  If you don't like it, I'll try someone else.
2.  Confirmatory – Do you like my product?  If you don't like it, I'll change it for you.
3.  Diagnostic – What product do you need to solve your most pressing issues?

Transactional companies limp along. Confirmatory companies succeed but not wildly. Diagnostic companies can grow exponentially.

Unity Farm Sanctuary in Sherborn, Mass., was started by my family in late 2016 as a non-profit providing a safe and loving lifelong home for farm animals.

Our sense was that such services were an unmet need in Massachusetts, where few organizations serve as sanctuaries and most are at capacity. Although we had experience raising dogs and caring for small animals, as well education in farm operations from the University of Massachusetts, every day has been a learning opportunity. We had to master large animal handling, medical care and four-season food/water supplies.

The first two years were very transactional and confirmatory with the public. We had a vision and modified that vision as we learned. As an engineer and clinician, I focused on the facilities and animal care, maturing the processes of daily operation. My wife, educated in the humanities and arts, is a people person. She immersed herself in the daily hours of training and educating every new volunteer and visitor.

With time, however, we discovered that running Unity Farm Sanctuary required a diagnostic approach. We learned that the public really wanted a place that promoted a culture of kindness and connection.

What do I mean?

In a world of too much stimulation – streaming videos, a 24x7 news cycle and high-paced video games –  there needs to be a place where you can step away from the anxiety and spend an hour grooming a goat. Or giving a 2500 pound bull a back scratch. Or feeding the chickens. Walking a woodland trail for quiet reflection is a powerful tonic. Watching alpaca pronk (bounce around) at sunset puts life into perspective.

Especially in a time of COVID and political polarization, there is a need for human-animal bonding. These interactions are diverse and spontaneous. In the days following the 2020 Presidential election, we had Boston-area visitors arrive to sit with the goats and just enjoy their company.

When we first started the sanctuary, the volunteer program was small and unstructured. Today we have 350 volunteers that earn specific credentials/badges for their knowledge and experience.

We serve volunteers and visitors with handicaps of all kinds. Some may not relate to other people, but they can easily relate to a horse. Some people develop a bond with a particular animal, and some people bond to the whole environment of the forest and paddocks. We have story after story of people from one to one hundred years old finding their bliss while serving rescued animals.

I've not found the term "community benefit startup" in common use, but that is what Unity Farm Sanctuary has become. The structure is a 501c (3) charity on 30 acres of owned land designated as a town forest/trail, and surrounded by other protected space, creating a 70 acre plateau with no immediate neighbors. There are 4 miles of trails, 5 streams, 2 ponds and 3 tree houses.  

The transformation in thinking that surprised me the most was that our service to volunteers is as important as our service to animals.  Updates about the health and activities of each rescue bring a bright spot to the day of the volunteers who give their time, energy and contributions to sustain the small city that Unity Farm Sanctuary has become. Feeds on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest require daily diligence, but the community benefit of posting them is palpable.  

At Mayo Clinic where I serve as President of Mayo Clinic Platform, we believe that innovation happens when you start small, think big, and move fast
https://www.amazon.com/Think-Start-Small-Move-Fast/dp/007183866X. Unity Farm Sanctuary is a perfect example of that idea. It started with a few chickens and now, three years later, is one of the largest animal sanctuaries in New England.  Being agile enough to listen to the needs of hundreds of stakeholders led us to create a community benefit startup. I firmly believe that a new class of organization, creating positive emotional, physical and mental experiences for volunteers, will be increasingly important in a world that needs more empathy and compassion. Unity Farm Sanctuary, a community benefit startup, is an early example.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Network medicine offers new insights into susceptibility to diseases such as COVID-19

In the past year, we've become familiar with the factors that can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. The elderly are more at risk, as are those who smoke and are already dealing with other diseases, such as cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

At a deeper level, though, there are dozens of other factors that may come into play and influence a person's susceptibility to disease. A recent analysis of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in 14 states found that among patients ages 50-64 that obesity was the most prevalent underlying medical condition. Similarly, there's growing evidence to suggest that vitamin D deficiency contributes to COVID-19 infection.

The emerging field of network medicine, powered by this type of digital analysis of large data sets, sheds light on the interplay between microbial virulence and the ability of a person's immune system to defend against diseases such as COVID-19. Network medicine allows researchers and physicians to look beyond the traditional root causes of disease and take a more holistic approach to identify agents that can influence a person's susceptibility to disease.

In an article that I co-authored with Paul Cerrato and Adam Perlman, M.D., MPH, for Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality and Outcomes, we describe how the analytic power of supercomputers and the emergence of big data sets has given researchers new insights into the causal relationships that influence susceptibility to disease. This technology dramatically improves our ability to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of factors as contributing agents.

Some of these agents are not surprising  nutritional status, for one, and environmental factors. Others may be harder to assess, like sleep habits, exercise, physical and psychosocial stressors, obesity, protein-calorie malnutrition and emotional resilience. Genetic variations such as single-nucleotide polymorphisms also are examined as possible agents affecting a person's vulnerability to disease.

With possible factors identified, deep learning algorithms can assess each's likely strengths and weaknesses as contributing factors to disease and help identify therapeutic options.

Using machine learning-enhanced algorithms to analyze risk factors and their interactions can help determine which ones can predict a person's risk of COVID-19 infection or the prognosis for someone who already has tested positive.

At a time when we're all looking for reasons for hope and encouragement  and the national rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine is a big one  it's good to remember that our capabilities to gain essential insights from AI, network medicine and deep learning algorithms are ever-growing and that we have the potential not only to resolve this pandemic more quickly but to completely redesign how we respond to pandemics in the future.