UPenn Students Design Toothbrush for Refugees

What would you do with $1 million dollars?

For four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, that might be a question that they already know the answer to.

Nishita Jain, Riddhi Surana, Varun Vallabhaneni and Charles Zhang are friends first, and partners second. Bonded by the same youthful idealism to pursue social entrepreneurship, the foursome beat eleven teams at Penn to proceed to the regional rounds of the prestigious Hult Prize, a $1,000,000 social entrepreneurship grant, with their idea for an innovative toothbrush.

The team calls their organic toothbrush the Haya brush, derived from a natural Middle Eastern plant that has antibacterial properties. The brush itself doesn’t require any toothpaste or water, making it convenient, accessible, and completely organic.

“When we were researching the refugee crisis, we realized that dental care is a foundational problem for many,” said Jain, one of the members of the team.

The team came across the plant while ways to alleviate the difficulty of providing sustainable dental care for the four million Syrian refugees residing in Jordan.

“As of now, mobile dental clinics can cost up to $30,000 every time to mobilize their resources and people, whereas in places such as Nepal, villagers have been self-reliant in their dental care using organic methods such as the one we are exploring,” said Surana.

To distribute the toothbrush, the team has decided to use the “buy-one-give-one” model popularized by companies such as Warby Parker and Tom Shoes. They also claim that the risk of displacing local supplies is minimal, as there is a current undersupply of appropriate dental care for Syrian refugees residing in Jordan.

“We think (using a “buy-one-give-one” model) makes a lot of sense,” said Zhang, “a sustainable business solution is much easier to scale than if we were just to build a traditional non-profit.”

This is the University of Pennsylvania’s third year of organizing the Hult social entrepreneurship prize, and the team behind the Haya brush has emerged as the winner. They will be pitching their idea against aspiring social entrepreneurs from other regional universities to compete for the grand prize of $1,000,000 and mentorship from the international business community. 

“While Hult Prize opens the door to amazing opportunities to students interested in social entrepreneurship, it also blesses us with the opportunity to do good and give back to society,” said Tiffany Yau, campus director for the Hult prize at Penn.

“With just one idea, you can profoundly change the lives of millions of people around the world and set the standard for the world in the 21st century,”


Jason Choi

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