Canopy takes grand prize in Innovation in Action public health challenge

CanopyCommunicating your end-of-life wishes is one of the most important things you can do for your health. So why don’t people take the time to complete advance directives and share them with their loved ones? 

That’s a question three University of Michigan graduate students explored as part of Innovation in Action: Solutions to Real-World Challenges, a five-month, university-wide challenge led by the School of Public Health that stimulates innovative, collaborative undergraduate and graduate students to address real-world problems.

“It’s been an awesome experience to bring to life what we’re learning in the classroom,” says Elisabeth Michel, a Health Behavior & Health Education student at the School of Public Health.

Michel joined forces with Health Informatics student Ann Duong and Design student Brandon Keelean to develop a business plan for Canopy, a web app that facilitates conversations about the end of life.

The app walks users through a step-by-step process modeled after TurboTax, with the goal of turning a complex process into something simple and user-friendly. Canopy translates the user’s answers into advance directive documents that can be digitally shared with loved ones, providing easy access in case of an emergency. In addition, there’s a video function that allows users to record their end-of-life wishes in their own words.

The team had initially focused on tackling a different health care problem—finding a way to give people’s health data back to them so they could use it in a meaningful way. However, they struggled with timing and capabilities.

A first-hand experience for Keelean, coupled with what the team was hearing in interviews with health care practitioners and patients, led them to move into the advance directive space.

“To do something like this, you have to be open to different ideas,” Michel says. “We wouldn’t have this idea if we weren’t open to changing course.”

Canopy was among 33 teams to participate in this year’s Innovation in Action public health competition and was selected as one of five teams to compete in the Final Showcase on March 10. A panel of expert judges chose Canopy to receive the $10,000 grand prize. The team also received the audience choice award, bringing in another $1,000. The team plans to invest the award money into developing their product. Read about the other finalists.

Innovation in Action starts in September, with information and team formation sessions, which include speed networking to help students find other students who are passionate about the same things, says Ann Verhey-Henke, managing director for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the School of Public Health.

From October through February, the student teams participate in learning modules and workshops that walk them through the innovation process and provide them with an innovation toolkit. Finally, they pitch their ideas to panel of judges made up of leaders from various industries.

“We want students to slowly and thoughtfully discover a problem and create a solution,” Verhey-Henke says. “The goal is not for students to become entrepreneurs—although some do. The tools they learn through this process can be used in any walk of life, and our hope is that innovation becomes part of their DNA.”

The Canopy team members say they may have caught the entrepreneurial bug.

“We came into it with low expectations for ourselves,” says Keelean. “We said we’ll show up and see how it goes. We didn’t know it was going to blossom into something so good.”

“This is just the beginning,” Duong adds. “We’re committed to moving forward and seeing where Canopy takes us.”

Clarify your wishesTake it one step at a timeLeave with a legal document