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Chicago thinks Zocdoc can help solve its vaccine chaos

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During the first week of February, a winter storm blew through Chicago, leaving piles of snow before subzero temperatures set in. Eve Bloomgarden, an endocrinologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, got a call from a worried patient who was scheduled to receive a covid-19 vaccine that week. She was preparing to brave the weather—and drive for the first time since the start of the pandemic—because she was concerned that this would be her only chance to get a shot.

“I’m seeing immense frustration and fear that they’re going to be left behind,” Bloomgarden says. 

Chicago, like many parts of the US, has found the distribution of covid-19 vaccines slower than anyone hoped. Just 6% of the city’s 2.7 million residents have been vaccinated so far, and people have said the process is “like the Hunger Games,” requiring them to stay up late to refresh multiple websites in the hope that an open slot will pop up. Making things worse, official sign-up websites are clunky and hard to navigate. 

In early February, the Department of Public Health announced a plan to help ease some of those technical problems: a partnership with Zocdoc, the popular online health-care scheduling company. Zocdoc is acting as a unified portal for multiple providers, so that people can sign up with a single, more user-friendly tool rather than wrestle with several different systems at once. While Chicago is the first city to make this specific agreement with Zocdoc, other health agencies are launching similar partnerships with private startups.

Before the pandemic, Zocdoc acted as a one-stop shop where patients could check out different doctors, compare medical providers, and make appointments. The company’s CEO, Oliver Kharraz, says the years spent bridging a fragmented health-care system unknowingly prepared it for taking on covid-19 vaccination appointments. After the idea was tested with the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, Zocdoc says, Chicago reached out about a partnership—and the system was up and running within a few weeks. Zocdoc connects with 1,400 different scheduling systems: doctors’ workflows remain unchanged, but patients all see the same simple interface no matter which provider they’re using.

“If you’re not plugged into the right system, then how are you going to get access?”

“You don’t have to register 10 times, and you know when the next available shot is for you,” Kharraz says.

Bloomgarden, the doctor at Northwestern Memorial, says the new Zocdoc tool will be a “great addition” to Chicago’s vaccine drive, but that it addresses only one of the issues with the rollout. After all, it’s still a version of the same first-come, first-served approach, which means it’s not solving the most critical problem: vaccines aren’t reaching the people who need them most.

Christina Anderson, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health and chief of operations for covid-19 response, says that while Zocdoc may not be the solution needed to reach and vaccinate elderly Chicagoans, it has the potential to help others who are struggling to get vaccinated, such as those without a primary care provider. 

But Bloomgarden says truly making vaccines accessible will require targeted outreach—much of it offline.

Who you know matters

Local and federal officials in the US seem to be coming to the same conclusion. On February 9, President Joe Biden announced a new program that will provide vaccines directly to community health centers serving 30 million people across the US, two-thirds of whom are at or below the federal poverty line. Federally qualified community health centers receive federal funding to provide care to underserved populations.

Keon L. Gilbert, an associate professor in behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University, says the approaches to serving particularly vulnerable populations have varied widely from state to state. Some states have moved adults over 65 up the priority list regardless of their other risk factors. Other strategies have come up against obstacles: when Dallas attempted to prioritize vaccinations for eligible people living in hard-hit zip codes—who tend to be people of color—the state threatened to reduce the county’s allotment of doses. 

Chicago, meanwhile, recently announced a program aimed at vaccinating people in high-need neighborhoods.

“Equity is not a static target or goal that one can reach. It’s something that has to be … defined by context,” Gilbert says. Overburdened public health departments may be more focused on absolute numbers than on assessing where the greatest need is.

Bloomgarden and her colleagues in the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team (IMPACT), a grassroots group formed in response to covid-19, think a lottery system would work best. Patients could register for a slot—either online or with someone who comes to their home—and then wait to be picked for an appointment. 

A weighted lottery would allow officials to make sure vaccines were reaching patients in hard-hit zip codes—especially important in Chicago, where wealthier, whiter parts of the city show higher levels of vaccination and lower death rates, while working-class, Black, and Latino areas are faring worst. 

Deputy health commissioner Anderson disagrees about whether lotteries are useful, saying the city is pushing to improve equity through community partnerships and outreach instead. City officials also attribute some of the existing racial disparity to the fact that health-care workers who have opted to be vaccinated are more likely to be white. 

Access issues are not limited to race and income. Residents may also be left out if they’re not linked to a big institution, says Ali Khan, executive medical director of Oak Street Health, a national chain of clinics serving low-income seniors. Mom-and-pop providers, solo practices, home health aides, and others across the city have struggled to obtain and administer vaccines without the resources of major operators, Khan says. When Oak Street opened its doors to vaccinate front-line medical workers no matter where they worked, the waitlist was almost immediately in the thousands. An app won’t necessarily fix that. 

“If you’re not plugged into the right system, then how are you going to get access?” Khan says.

Anderson says the city does plan to make the system work better for people who aren’t associated with a major provider. One federally qualified community health center is already enrolled in the Zocdoc system, and she expects more to follow. This will be important as vaccine supply increases, she says.

Building “connective tissue” 

Another issue that can’t be solved with an app is overcoming vaccine hesitancy. Khan thinks of community outreach as the key here. Meanwhile, Anderson says city officials are hosting town halls to answer questions about the vaccine for those who may be “slow yeses.” 

Despite the challenges, Khan believes a combination of different systems and networks can do the hard work of vaccinating everybody. His focus is on the “connective tissue” where people live, work, and gather: grocery stores, places of worship, community centers, pharmacies. What he calls the “slow work” of such network-building goes far beyond sending out a link for sign-up. Like Zocdoc, it’s about centralizing information and sharing it across organizations—except it happens mostly offline.

“There should not be 90-year-olds sitting around wondering if anyone’s going to remember they exist and give them a vaccine.”

Bloomgarden stresses just how important it is to get this right, and fast.

“There’s just no way to keep this as a first-come, first-served internet online sign-up,” she says. “There should not be 90-year-olds sitting around wondering if anyone’s going to remember they exist and give them a vaccine.”

For now, like places all across the US and the world, Chicago and its citizens are desperately waiting to receive more doses. Anderson says that when it announced the Zocdoc partnership, the city added nearly 3,000 appointment slots to the system. They were filled before the press conference was over.

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Qualcomm veteran to replace Alain Crozier as Microsoft Greater China boss

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Microsoft gets a new leader for its Greater China business. Yang Hou, a former executive at Qualcomm, will take over Alain Crozier as the chairman and chief executive officer for Microsoft Greater China Region, according to a company announcement released Monday.

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Autonomous drone maker Skydio raises $170M led by Andreessen Horowitz

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Skydio has raised $170 million in a Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Growth Fund. That pushes it into unicorn territory, with $340 million in total funding and a post-money valuation north of $1 billion. Skydio’s fresh capital comes on the heels of its expansion last year into the enterprise market, and it intends to use the considerable pile of cash to help it expand globally and accelerate product development.

In July of last year, Skydio announced its $100 million Series C financing, and also debuted the X2, its first dedicated enterprise drone. The company also launched a suite of software for commercial and enterprise customers, its first departure from the consumer drone market where it had been focused prior to that raise since its founding in 2014.

Skydio’s debut drone, the R1, received a lot of accolades and praise for its autonomous capabilities. Unlike other consumer drones at the time, including from recreational drone maker DJI, the R1 could track a target and film them while avoiding obstacles without any human intervention required. Skydio then released the Skydio 2 in 2019, its second drone, cutting off more than half the price while improving on it its autonomous tracking and video capabilities.

Late last year, Skydio brought on additional senior talent to help it address enterprise and government customers, including a software development lead who had experience at Tesla and 3D printing company Carbon. Skydio also hired two Samsara executives at the same time to work on product and engineering. Samsara provides a platform for managing cloud-based fleet operations for large enterprises.

The applications of Skydio’s technology for commercial, public sector and enterprise organizations are many and varied. Already, the company works with public utilities, fire departments, construction firms and more to do work including remote inspection, emergency response, urban planning and more. Skydio’s U.S. pedigree also puts it in prime position to capitalize on the growing interest in applications from the defense sector.

a16z previously led Skydio’s Series A round. Other investors who participated in this Series D include Lines Capital, Next47, IVP and UP.Partners.

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Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

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Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

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