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Israeli startup wins IBM top prize to Zzapp out malaria by mapping water sources

App developed by ZzappMalaria predicts formation of small water bodies caused by weather and optimizes time to start anti-mosquito operations

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A mosquito bites a person. (iStock from Getty Images/fotomarekka)
A mosquito bites a person. (iStock from Getty Images/fotomarekka)

ZzappMalaria, a Jerusalem-based startup whose mobile app aims to help identify potential sources of malaria, has won a first prize of $3 million in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE competition. The firm was also selected as the “Most Inspiring Team” in the People’s Choice Award.

The IBM Watson AI XPRIZE Challenge was launched in 2016 to promote the use of AI to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Aifred Health, a Montreal-based digital health company focused on providing support for clinical decisions for mental health, won second place, getting a $1 million prize. Marinus Analytics, a Pittsburg, US-based firm that uses AI to quickly turn big data into actionable intelligence, helps fight human trafficking by saving hours and sometimes days of investigative time to find traffickers and recover victims. Marinus came in third, getting a $500,000 prize. A total of over 150 global teams took part in the competition.

The jury evaluated each team based on its performance in four parameters: achieved technical impact, evidenced real-world impact, scalability of real-world impact, and ethics and safety, the XPRIZE and IBM Watson statement said.

Malaria kills more than 400,000 people yearly, most of whom are children under the age of five, and greatly impedes developing economies. The disease has been eliminated from many countries through large-scale operations that targeted the water bodies in which the malaria-bearing mosquitoes breed.

However, similar operations have failed in several African countries due to planning and operational complexities stemming from dispersed geography and tropical climate. Zzapp tries to solve this problem through technology that increases the cost-effectiveness of such operations, enabling them to go ahead even when only limited budgets are available and “under the most challenging environmental conditions,” Zzapp said in a statement last week, announcing the win.

The ZzappMalaria app in action (Courtesy)

The app developed by Zzapp creates custom models, built with AI-based tools of IBM Watson, to predict the number of small water bodies caused by weather, helping optimize the timing for launching operations to kill the larvae of mosquitos deposited in these waters.

Zzapp uses AI to tailor malaria-control strategies per village or neighborhood, then breaks down these strategies into tasks, the Jerusalem startup said in a statement. These tasks are given to fieldworkers via the mobile app, which guides them in the field and enables them to easily upload data to a designated dashboard. All of this helps monitor and orchestrate the elimination campaign.

ZzappMalaria’s machine learning capabilities continuously improve the system’s efficacy from one operation to the next, the startup said in its statement.

The app was designed specifically to address local needs: it has low battery consumption, does not require continuous internet connectivity and works well even on less advanced smartphones. The technology has been tested in six countries across Africa and has been proven to increase coverage of water bodies, shorten work time, improve coordination between the workers and “significantly increase the effectiveness of the operation,” the statement said.

“We will dedicate the prize money to one ambitious goal: demonstrating that rapid malaria elimination is possible in Sub Saharan Africa,” said Arnon Houri-Yafin, CEO and founder of ZzappMalaria, in the statement.

Zzapp, founded in 2016, is a subsidiary of Sight Diagnostics, a company that has developed an AI-based medical device to detect and diagnose malaria via a finger prick of blood and the maker of the Sight OLO, a hematology analyzer that performs blood count (CBC) tests in minutes, using only two drops of blood from a finger prick or venous blood sample.

Zzapp’s malaria initiative has won several grants, among them from the Gates Foundation and the Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC), and has been conducting anti-malaria operations in Ghana, Zanzibar, Kenya and Ethiopia, the statement said.

XPRIZE is a nonprofit organization that sets up competitions that try to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

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