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Tech Opportunities on the Road to Rio

One resounding question haunts the 2016 Summer Olympics preparations — Is Rio ready?

As the 2016 Summer Olympics approach, all eyes are on Rio de Janeiro not only because it is this year’s location for the Games, but because of the rising health and safety concerns in the region that continue to go unresolved.

Fortunately, with rising issues comes more opportunities for innovation.

Let’s Start With Zika

According to Ron Klain, executive vice president and general counsel of Revolution, the fundamental tools to fight Zika already exist, but the virus will continue to be a problem if there is no political will to make use of those tools.

“Public health officials and policy makers must fight this fight with the tools they have — and those tools are adequate to fight Zika if policy makers will fund them and implement them,” he told 1776 in an email.

Klain, who served as the White House Ebola Response Coordinator, elaborated more on this in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post. He stressed that the nature of the outbreak “should not constrain the federal government’s ability to provide a timely, comprehensive response.” The same could be said for Rio as the state faces political and economical instability in addition to the health and safety issues. 

Beyond the basic tools, such as mosquito repellent, innovators are developing mobile apps to fight the virus. Everything from the World Health Organization’s informational Zika app to a geolocating app developed by Brazil-based startup, show how entrepreneurs and new technology can play a role in fighting epidemics.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the geolocating app called “Sem Dengue” (“Without Dengue”) lets citizens report stagnant, mosquito-infested water to authorities through their phones. Simply snapping a picture and tagging its location can provide critical information and enable officials to respond quickly and effectively.

Kinsa is another startup working to combat Zika through a mobile app. The San Francisco-based startup, developed the first smartphone app thermometer in order for those who may have contracted the virus to monitor their fever — a common symptom of the Zika virus. Yet, the outbreak continues to be a major concern causing some Olympians to drop out.

Water Pollution Concerns

A similar message lies in providing solutions to water pollution. ESPN reported that as part of the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio committed to treat the sewage and sanitation issues.

However, several years after the bid was submitted, the Associated Press released results on tests showing the waters were still contaminated, some areas containing viral bacteria at levels equivalent to that found in raw sewage.

Like Klain, Imagine H2O President Scott Bryan believes that the tools and technology to combat water pollution are available, “Yet, most water problems are a crisis in governance,” he wrote in an email to 1776.

Imagine H2O is a San Francisco-based global accelerator that has supported over 550 water startups across the globe. In light of the water pollution’s impact on this year’s Olympics, he stressed the importance of setting priorities in the innovation and creation process.

“For water entrepreneurs, the challenge is to think ‘beyond the gadget’ and prioritize services that will be valued and sustained by communities and people,” Bryan said.

As entrepreneurs fighting water pollution, Pete Ceglinski and Andrew Turton, co-founders of Seabin, also believe that solutions are found beyond the surface.

“Just removing the floating visible waste might make it seem more attractive, but the pollution and stuff in the water that you don’t see is just as big a concern,” they said in an emailed statement. “The only way to tackle this polluting problem head on is to change the entire plastics and waste culture and services in Rio.”

With Games less than a month away, Ceglinski and Turton say that it will be a while until the water pollution is resolved, and Zika outbreak concerns will still be on travelers’ minds when the Opening Ceremony kicks off in August.

Innovating for Epidemics 

However, when it comes to innovation in epidemic crises, Klain said the solutions created in one epidemic contribute to the approach for the next epidemic.

“Innovation plays a key role in fighting epidemics, but almost always, innovation provides solutions for the next outbreak,” he said. “You almost always have to fight an epidemic with the tools you have when it begins.”

With Games less than a month away, the water pollution and Zika outbreak concerns won’t be completely eliminated before the Opening Ceremony. At this point, most of what the World Health Organization advises those traveling to Rio in August doesn’t go beyond being careful and taking preventive measures. However, entrepreneurs and startups have the opportunity to do much more.

Virus outbreaks and water pollution are both problems that have gone on for years, and the challenges facing Rio indicate an urgent need for innovative solutions from health and water startups. Whether it be through developing new technology to protect people from diseases and bacteria or by coming up with services the public can use to provide essential data to officials, the time for innovation in these areas is now.

Chelsea Tyson

Chelsea Tyson recently graduated from Regent University and is working to pursue a degree in journalism. She previously interned at 1776 where she developed a passion for writing about the…