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Students team with world experts to tackle deadly mosquito-spread diseases

Monday, April 25 2016 12:00am

Vaylenx, a business run by Ohio University students, earned the Founder’s Award at the Texas Christian University (TCU) Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures® Competition for having the boldest idea with the widest impact.

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By Brianna Wilson

Mosquitoes are responsible for more than a million deaths worldwide each year, according to the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA)—more than any other organism on Earth. They’re also the main transmitter of Zika virus, a devastating virus with no cure.

So what if we told you that OHIO students Morgan Stanley, ’15 Kate Clausen, ’16, David Bartizal, ’16, and Noah Rosenblatt, ’16 are working with experts worldwide to find a solution to the problem, and recently won an award for their efforts?

Clausen, Stanley, and Rosenblatt traveled to Fort Worth, Texas in early April to compete in TCU Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures® Competition, after being selected through an application process.

“I’ve been lucky to be around a lot of great entrepreneurs in my career. Noah, Kate, Morgan, and David have as much potential as anyone I’ve ever met,” said Paul Benedict, instructor of management the College of Business and the group’s faculty adviser. “What’s exciting is that they’re trying to tackle a massive problem and they’re motivated by the right thing; they want to bring something good to the world.”

At the competition, the team was recognized with the Founder’s Award, given to the team who presents the most inspirational project, attempting to tackle the largest problem. A $5,000 prize accompanied the award.

“With the advent of the Zika virus epidemic as well as other mosquito-related diseases that have plagued many countries, Vaylenx has a unique opportunity to remedy the underlying source of these diseases and potentially save millions of lives,” said Nancy Richards, founder of real estate company First Preston HT. “Twelve judges unanimously selected Vaylenx out of 47 teams for the Founder’s Award for their foresight and commitment to address this global issue.” 

Behind the scenes of Vaylenx

In 2014, Clausen, Rosenblatt, Stanley, and Seth Baker, ‘15 competed in the first-ever Global Health Case Competition at OHIO, where they were asked to combat malaria and other vector-borne diseases in Guyana. Within two weeks, they developed a proposal calling for strategic planting of eucalyptus trees, regular harvesting of the trees, and finally, using the eucalyptus tree wood to produce carbon nanoparticles, which would ultimately kill the mosquitoes.

After winning the competition, Stanley, Rosenblatt and Clausen traveled to Guyana to meet with government officials, including representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Guyana Environmental Protection Agency, and the Ministries of Health, Education, Natural Resources and Agriculture, and even Guyanese citizens. In just two weeks, they met with officials, collected feedback, and reached an agreement that once the lab particles were developed, Guyana would purchase them for a field test.

Since, the team formed Vaylenx LLC, and developed an advisory board, including Dr. Sarkar, professor at Indian Institute of Engineering and Science Technologywho conducted the original research, Dr. Horodyski, professor of biomedical sciences at OHIO, Dr. Weyand, assistant professor of biological sciences at OHIO, Dr. Bigealke, professor of biomedical sciences at OHIO, Dr. Romoser, former OHIO professor, Dr. Nasci, former director of abroviral diseases at the Center for Disease Control, and Dr. Niera, senior scientist for the Center for Infections and Chronic Disease Research in Quito, Ecuador.

“We are so grateful to Paul [Benedict], Luke [Pittaway], and Ohio University for all of their support,” said Clausen.

What’s next?

Dr. Niera, lead researcher of the Vaylenx team and expert in entomology, will begin the three-phase research process. First, he’ll replicate the initial study. Next, he’ll find out exactly how carbon nanoparticle is killing the mosquitoes. Lastly, he’ll complete environmental modeling to make sure the solution is free from adverse environmental effects. The team anticipates the three phases to take a year.

Though there are similar applications of the nanoparticle and technology already used in agriculture and medicine, it is novel in its application to mosquito control.

“We have a great team of leading experts in the world, and think we can make great progress,” said Clausen. “We really do believe it will work, and are excited to move forward.”