Startups using AI to tackle malaria, mental health and human trafficking take top awards, and cash, from IBM XPrize

ZzappMalaria uses AI to target the breeding sites of mosquitoes, which can carry malaria. The company built an AI-powered, map-based app that helps predict where stagnant water will occur and guides field workers to manage treatment through pesticides. (ZzappMalaria)

An Israeli startup that uses artificial intelligence and other tech tools to wipe out malaria took the top prize in IBM Watson's AI competition, nabbing $3 million to expand its operations.

ZzappMalaria, a subsidiary of Sight Diagnostics, developed an AI-powered mobile app and dashboard to tackle malaria on the eradication level, specifically in developing countries.

Watson, IBM's AI division, teamed up with nonprofit XPrize back in 2016 to promote the use of AI to solve the world's most pressing problems in areas such as healthcare, education, global development and exploration. The competition started with 150 teams judged based on their technical impact, evidenced real-world impact, potential scalability and ethics and safety.

Aifred Health, a digital health company focused on clinical decision support in mental health, took second place in the AI competition, banking $1 million. The startup uses AI to learn from thousands of patients to help tailor treatment, reducing the time it takes for a patient to reach remission.

IBM Watson Health is providing Aifred Health with millions of records of observational depression data to improve its machine learning models, the company said in a press release.

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Third place, and a $500,000 award, went to Pittsburgh-based Marinus Analytics, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help law enforcement battle human trafficking and other crime. The woman-owned company was founded in 2014 out of Carnegie Mellon Robotics. The company's analytics tool, called Traffic Jam, helps find traffickers and recover victims by quickly turning big data into actionable intelligence. In 2019, Traffic Jam was used to identify an estimated 3,800 victims of sex trafficking, according to the company.

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ZzappMalaria was spun out of Sight Diagnostics, a developer of lab-grade blood testing systems with results in minutes. The startup uses AI to target the breeding sites of mosquitoes, which can carry malaria. The company built an AI-powered, map-based app that helps predict where stagnant water (caused by rain) will occur and guides field workers to manage treatment through pesticides, said Arnon Houri-Yafin, CEO and founder of ZzappMalaria, in a video.

The startup has focused its anti-malaria operations in Africa, specifically in Ghana, Zanzibar, Kenya and Ethiopia. 

ZzappMalaria app (ZzappMalaria)

The app was designed specifically to address local needs in sub-Saharan Africa: It has a low battery consumption, does not require continuous internet connectivity and works well even on simple phones.

"Our technology uses AI to analyze drone and satellite imagery, topography data, weather data and user reports to tells us where to look for water bodies, when to launch interventions and how much it will cost," Houri-Yafin said in the video.

Malaria kills more than 400,000 people yearly, most of whom are children under the age of five. 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, according to the company.

Malaria killed six times more people than COVID-19 last year in Africa, according to Houri-Yafin.

The $3 million in funding from the IBM Watson AI XPrize competition will enable ZzappMalaria to launch malaria elimination operations in three more countries in the next five years, he said.

The company has set a goal of completely eliminating malaria in São Tomé and Príncipe, an African island nation close to the equator, in the next two years.