Riya Shah walked into her high school without knowing it would be her last day in person.
It was March when the uncertainty of a pandemic flooded her life in Louisville, Kentucky. Classes transitioned to virtual learning. Then prom was canceled. By May, graduation was altered to follow social distancing guidelines.
“It was definitely very disheartening when all of these major milestone events got canceled,” said Shah, a high school senior at the time. “Those are things kids dream of when they’re growing up.”
But one milestone that Shah had long dreamed of was finally realized – receiving her first patent for a contraction monitoring device in March.
The 18-year-old founder and president of Fetal Life has spent the past three years developing technology to help expecting mothers manage their health remotely. When the pandemic struck, Shah refocused her existing platform to help women navigate pregnancy in a landscape where a trip to the hospital can pose new risks. She is one of many young inventors who have turned their attention to fighting a global pandemic that has infected more than 32 million and claimed nearly a million lives.
“We’re worried about our health and going out, but pregnant moms are worried about two lives,” Shah said. “So what can we do to help them out?”
From telehealth platforms to apps connecting donors with those in need, rising entrepreneurs have channeled the disruption to their lives into effecting change.
‘Kindness begins with me’
Each summer, aspiring coders gather on MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for an app invention summit. But this year, the hackathon went virtual – limiting face-to-face contact, but opening it up to the world.
“There was a sense of helplessness that was settling down. And a big theme in our workplace is empowerment,” said Selim Tezel, co-chair of the MIT App Inventor Hackathon 2020. “We wanted to give them a context in which they could be creative and sort of get rid of that feeling of helplessness.”
Saan Cern Yong, a 15-year-old app developer in Malaysia, had followed the hackathon for several years. But now that the competition had moved online, he could finally enter. And he won.
Yong started with the value that “kindness begins with me and we can take action immediately.” He designed a mobile app called “We Are Family” to create a charity network within his community to help with the fallout from Covid-19. The prototype was awarded first place in the youth individual category.
“I stayed at home for quite some time, and I found a lot of things that I didn’t need, like some plates or some food that are too much,” Yong said. “We can actually give some … to people who are really in need … so this is a platform for them to continue this caring society.”
The pandemic not only shifted Yong’s world – from strict lockdowns to socially distanced classrooms – but it also shifted his outlook on coding.
Before Covid-19, Yong said he was creating apps that addressed “small-scale problems that really hadn’t much impact.”
“Covid-19 really pushed me harder to make different kind of apps that help people … to think outside the box, that I really need to innovate and try to help the world.”
When San Francisco became one of the first US cities to go on lockdown, a group of five young women began forming a plan.
With closure signs littering the windows of long-established restaurants, the all-girl coding team focused on how their tech skills might help their community.
“Just knowing that your environment can change so much, it’s sometimes easy to feel helpless,” 15-year-old Elsa Bosemark said. “But here I think it was really amazing we could … see an obstacle and not hope that it doesn’t hurt when it hits you, but try to deter it or see it as a challenge, and knowing that it could help people.”
The teenage coding team known as AlGIRLithm designed an app to review restaurants’ Covid-19 precautions – helping customers stay safe while also supporting local businesses. For Anuhea Tao, it was also a way to help other families avoid what hers went through.
When her father’s restaurant closed down, the weight of the pandemic finally sunk in, she said. It was a stressful time for her family, but the high-school junior used her experience to help inform the app’s goals.
“When we started this hackathon, it was like, ‘Oh, we want to do something to actually help our communities and do something impactful we’re actually passionate about,’” Tao said.
Their prototype for Safe Bites won first place for the youth team category in MIT’s hackathon. The app is still in its development phase, but the team hopes to expand their platform to help people make informed decisions on where to eat and feel safe doing so.
“Though it started small, with a group of teens, this can become more,” Bosemark said. As her dad often tells her, “You’re taking lemons and making lemonade,” she said.