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Grad student-organized COVID-19 response lab mobilizes teams to tackle coronavirus response

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The COVID-19 Response Innovation Lab, a new grad student-run initiative affiliated with Stanford Biosecurity, plans to launch and scale projects and ventures aimed at combating COVID-19 and its effects on society.

As of its website launch on Friday, the lab had around 150 grad students working on 16 active projects, from home testing to matching for mutual aid. The startups are generally tech-oriented, but not all are based in digital platforms. 

“We want to address not just medical issues, not just social distancing but also mental health and mutual aid,” said Anica Oesterle MBA ’22.

Fourteen projects are still in development, and the lab has about 250 members in total. Initially founded by five members of the Graduate School of Business (GSB) class of 2022 as a group for classmates, the lab has since expanded to include students in the School of Medicine and School of Engineering in addition to the Business School.

Its five current co-directors are Nancy Xu Ph.D. ’25 and four members of the GSB class of 2022: Josh Payne, Anica Oesterle, Daniel Reyes and Julieta Romero.

Josh Payne MBA ’22 said he was inspired to start the lab after taking a biosecurity class taught by Milana Trounce MBA ’08. Trounce, a doctor professor in the School of Medicine and expert on emergency medical response and bioweapons, is now an adviser to the response lab. 

While the response lab isn’t officially affiliated with the GSB and doesn’t invest in or fund any of the projects in its ecosystem, it provides expert contacts, connections with peers and an opportunity for people struggling with empty months to work on developing high-impact ventures and nonprofits. One project, Make, is a distributed 3D printing network that hopes to rapidly manufacture thousands of American-made face shields, masks and plastic parts to fill badly needed shortages across the nation. 

“We’re able to 3D print several thousand units of face shields, DIY face masks, and DIY ventilator parts in materials such as Nylon and leverage our network to scale to millions of parts if required,” Make’s founder, Nishat Rustagi, told The Daily.

One non-medical project is Virtual Companions, a community-building service that pairs college students and young people with isolated elders through weekly phone check-ins and free live music concerts in the style of Stanford’s “[email protected]” effort. 

Gaby Li ’22, the project’s founder, told The Daily that the response lab has been a great support network.

“I got to meet some other motivated individuals who are working on bringing Virtual Companions to their countries,” Li said.

Another response lab project is “Pandemic Pulse,” an upcoming Stanford-oriented coronavirus news podcast started by Catherine Gu M.S. ’20. Gu hopes to produce weekly half-hour installments featuring both recaps of recent developments and in-depth interviews with one or two specialists at the frontier of the fight against COVID-19. Along with two GSB students who handle operations and four core podcast members including two biomedical Ph.D.s, Gu has collaborated across time zones to schedule interviews for team members and plan cohesive episodes.

“This disease has really abruptly changed all our lives, and it is important now to start seeing the impact of this virus across generations not just from a health perspective but on a social and economic level in a profound way,” Gu said.

Currently, one of the most developed projects in the accelerator is KitaKajaKita, a one-stop user-friendly mutual aid platform that matches individuals with trustworthy NGOs and verified charities in Malaysia.

Kita Jaga Kita means “we help ourselves” in Malay, and in its first two weeks the website had 35,000 users across the Southeast Asian nation. A famous Malaysian street artist and documentarian named Fami Rehza promised to design personalized profile art for all donors and now spends eight hours a day on the work.

Andrew Loh MBA ’22 developed KitaJagaKita with a team of 12 Malaysian programmers and designers to empower individuals and companies to help neighbors as easily as possible. Loh is a student in the dual program with the GSB and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who hails from what he calls “the Brooklyn of Kuala Lumpur.” 

“If you scale it up to think of civil society as a whole, we aim to help civil society better channel resources to those that are vulnerable,” Loh said.

With the Response Innovation Lab, Loh has been working on expanding the strategies and design behind KitaJagaKita’s success into other local communities across the world by developing plug-and-play web templates and a consistent playbook.

“The objective is to make the COVID-19 response as painless and smooth as possible, and we want to help other groups do that however we can,” Loh said.

Groups in New York City and Miami are developing websites right now, and Loh’s classmate Thilo Braun MBA ’22 has developed a website for German mutual aid called Hilfe Register after struggling to find relevant COVID-related initiatives. 

“After facing the same problem in Germany, Andrew’s website and a phone call with him provided the final inspiration to start a similar project in Germany,” Braun wrote in an email to The Daily. “A week later, we have a team of 10, over 400 initiatives, great user feedback, will be expanding into Austria shortly, and hope to support other teams with our learnings and code to launch in new geographies.”

The question of what will happen to services like KitaJagaKita or Hilfe Register after the COVID-19 crisis is over is still up in the air. Loh told The Daily he himself has no specific plans for after the pandemic but understands that other groups might.

“My German friend Thilo, he would say yes this idea has legs beyond the virus, and the way he designed his website is just ‘Help Registry’ in German, so it’s not specific to COVID in terms of the branding even though the content is right now,” Loh said. “I would also say the value-add of such a website is greatest when the government response is weakest, so for developing countries I would also say the idea of efficient allocation of resources may make sense on a conceptual level.”

As for the Response Innovation Lab, the ultimate goal is to be folded into Stanford Biosecurity in the School of Medicine and become an official part of the University. Instead of only focusing on COVID-19, the Response Innovation Lab would adapt to respond to the major disasters and future pestilences following the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

April 13, 6 p.m.: This article has been updated to include that Virtual Companions provides weekly phone check-ins.

This article has been corrected to reflect that Nishat Rustagi is not an alumnus of the Graduate School of Business. This article has also been corrected to reflect that Catherine Gu M.S. ’20 hopes to produce weekly, not daily, installments of podcast “Pandemic Pulse.The Daily regrets these errors.

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck.
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