Educators have long recognized that schools are more than just a place for learning. They’re also a key space where students’ health can be monitored and improved, as well as the health of the community surrounding the school. This became particularly clear when COVID-19 surrounded the globe last March. Our interconnectedness as a global community – particularly our health – became impossible to ignore.
Zach Hermes, MD, launched Boston-based startup Odessa Health in 2020 as a response to the need he saw in schools around the country. The team at Odessa Health built a platform that enables school administrators to better monitor infections and potential exposures in their schools, with a mobile application launching in early April, 2021.
Beyond COVID-19, the team at Odessa Health sees a larger opportunity to transform the way schools and providers promote health and wellness in children. Odessa Health has moved forward with the help of the Allston Venture Fund and grants from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital as recipients of the Martin P. Solomon Fellowship and Rappoport Award for Clinical Innovation.
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start this venture?
Zach Hermes: I was never someone who knew they’d become a doctor. However, as a college sophomore, I found my way into the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP). The program focused on exposing underrepresented minorities to careers in health. For me, this translated into a summer immersion in care delivery, equity and disparities, and advocacy at the University of Washington in Seattle. The cornerstone of my experience was at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, a community health center in urban Seattle where children and families found holistic care spanning physical and mental health, nutrition and social support, and community-based partnerships.
I came out of the experience invigorated by a different vision of medicine, one that uses healthcare as a platform to address the social, economic, and structural determinants of health facing the individuals, families, and communities we serve. Health equity has been my North Star since then.
Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic was named after Odessa Brown, a woman who worked tirelessly to address the health needs of African-American children and underserved communities. Through our name, we honor her and the clinic she inspired. We aim to empower communities across the nation to improve child and family health by offering technology and services that can facilitate a collaborative relationship between education and healthcare. We believe we can further the work she began through our digital platform and transformative programming.
We can reimagine schools as a key venue for health engagement bolstered by a fundamental recognition that healthy students – physically, emotionally, and socially – are better students.
Zach Hermes, MD
Founder of Odessa Health
HIL: How does that inspiration relate directly to Odessa Health?
ZH: As the harsh realities of the pandemic became clear last spring, I felt an overwhelming call to action. The pandemic exacerbated inequities experienced by children and families in underserved communities. Prolonged school closures were disproportionately harming low-income children of color. I felt compelled to explore if and how digital tools could organize and automate key data collection processes related to COVID-19. Done well, the right tools could help schools reopen and make in-person instruction feasible.
As we dove into this work, our conversations with teachers, principals, school health staff, district health leaders, and superintendents uncovered much larger needs and opportunities beyond the ones presented by the pandemic. Many students face challenges accessing primary care. It falls on schools, particularly those in underserved communities, to shoulder the increasing costs and responsibilities in ensuring the health of children in their communities. Unfortunately, the tools and capacity they have to do that critical work are often manual, inefficient, and hindered by key gaps in information and data. We’ve come to see COVID-19 as a catalyst. Because of it, we can reimagine schools as a key venue for health engagement bolstered by a fundamental recognition that healthy students – physically, emotionally, and socially – are better students.
Today, our platform provides a digital COVID-19 symptom screening tool, integration of testing results, and data-driven insights for administrators and school health leaders. This makes the work of tracking cases, identifying potential exposures, and understanding campus-wide insights more efficient and accessible. Beyond COVID-19, we are focused on helping schools and key health stakeholders assess and understand social-emotional and behavioral health needs through real-time data from children and their caregivers.
Our core mission is to transform care, create opportunity in education, and unlock human potential for underserved children and families through equitable access to critical health services.
HIL: Have there been any particular challenges in developing Odessa Health, particularly during COVID-19?
ZH: As we engaged with schools and districts throughout the fall, the inconsistencies and heterogeneity between local, state, and federal policies put schools, districts, and their leaders in very challenging positions. This was further complicated by uncertainty and fear facing school leaders as they balanced many stakeholders, including parents, teachers, public health experts, and the general public. Over the past nine months, my respect has only increased for school leaders facing exceedingly challenging decisions with insufficient data and information, and doing so with a sense of deep responsibility and care for their students.
Our focus on social-emotional and behavioral health will help establish a foundation that encourages health and opportunity as children move into adulthood.
Zach Hermes, MD
Founder of Odessa Health
HIL: What keeps you inspired in pursuing this venture?
ZH: The opportunity to impact children positively at a critical stage in their lives makes it all worthwhile. Our focus on social-emotional and behavioral health will help establish a foundation that encourages health and opportunity as children move into adulthood.
Additionally, this moment feels so ripe. Even prior to COVID-19, educators were increasingly recognizing the importance of social-emotional well-being on academic outcomes. In parallel, the importance of behavioral health and its integration into primary care have become well-established. Social-emotional well-being in educational settings and behavioral health in healthcare are just two-sides of the same coin. Both of these trends are grounded by a healthcare sector that is undergoing rapid transformation in remote and virtual care. Policies have also created stronger behavioral and financial incentives for value-based approaches anchored by community-centered care.
Most importantly, our society finds itself in a critical moment where we are facing the realities of profound socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequities. Now is the time to invest in our future, our children. Through improved health and social-emotional well-being, we can give them the tools to thrive in education, work, and life.
HIL: What do you envision as the future for Odessa Health?
ZH: Ultimately, our vision to transform pediatric care and the health of underserved communities. Our goal is to create a company that is loved and trusted by the communities we serve. For health, we can streamline the collection, aggregation, and exchange of pediatric health care between schools and care providers, community-based organizations, and managed care organizations. For schools, we provide the digital infrastructure to operationalize the concept of community schools. We believe Odessa Health can transform care and create opportunity for millions of children and families.
This profile is part of our series on i-lab ventures changing the way we think about and approach education around the world. From teaching negotiation skills to improving students’ mental health, these startups are making sure students succeed in school and after.