The purpose is twofold: “tap into the creative and forward-thinking minds of young people, and at the same time, encourage students to take a more active role in understanding and shaping health care.” Indeed, the second annual Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ) Health Care Transformation Challenge yielded new apps and devices designed by college students with their peers top of mind. The teams placing first and second in the statewide competition — which this year awarded $10,000 in cash prizes and addressed mental/behavioral health, disease management and nutrition/fitness — were from NJIT.

In a press release issued by Horizon BCBSNJ, Mary Ann Christopher, M.S.N., R.N., FAAN, vice president for community health for Horizon BCBSNJ, and a Challenge judge, said, “It was intriguing to see how young adults view some of health care’s most complex problems. There’s no better way to gain insight into practical ideas on health and wellness strategies for young adults than to look through the eyes of creative millennials.”

“Our millennial innovators didn’t disappoint,” added Douglas Blackwell, senior vice president and CIO for Horizon BCBSNJ, who also served as a Challenge judge. “All of the college students brought to the Challenge creative and original proposals.”

Of the 14 team submissions from seven New Jersey schools, six were selected as finalists and presented to a judging panel that included experts in marketing, technology and value-based care. The seven NJIT students on the top two winning teams are all Albert Dorman Honors College scholars who applied what they’ve learned at the university thus far to develop interesting and impressive innovations for better health care.

Here, we meet the teams and learn the stories behind their ideas.

The RiseOn Team

- Naira Abou-Ghali ’20, from Parlin, N.J., studying biology. Career pursuit: pharmacist and professor

- Yasmine Ghattas ’20, from Irvine, Calif., studying biology and chemistry. Career pursuit: physician scientist

- Shreena Mehta ’20, from Old Bridge, N.J., studying computer science. Career pursuit: data scientist or analyst

- Yasmine Mohamed ’20, from West Orange, N.J., studying biology. Career pursuit: physician

The RiseOn team presents to the judges at the Health Care Transformation Challenge.

When Abou-Ghali posted in the Honors Girls Group chat on GroupMe, asking if anyone wanted to participate in the Health Care Transformation Challenge, her soon-to-be teammates responded within minutes of one another. They quickly began brainstorming with a focus on disease management, and were ultimately inspired by their own experiences navigating insurance plans.

“Insurance plans that meet both financial and personal needs are often difficult to find and understand,” Mehta pointed out. “Our preliminary research showed that 35 percent of millennials today are not informed about the health insurance options open to them, and we decided to solve this problem by starting at its roots!”

The result of their effort is RiseOn, a comprehensive tech platform that incorporates an algorithm and chatbot to improve accessibility to information, perceived affordability of insurance and insurance-plan personalization. The algorithm helps users find an insurance plan based on various parameters they input into the platform. The chatbot, named CHERI, is available to answer any questions users have about their health insurance, as well as facilitate connections with a professional case manager for further assistance. RiseOn also features a page listing common health care terms.

Over four weeks or so, the team members designed and developed the RiseOn prototype along with their proposal and presentation. They remember being in a bustling meeting room on the day of competition, anxiously awaiting the outcome with the other teams.

“Douglas Blackwell announced the winners. He began by saying that the first-place prize was a technology solution that stood out to him,” Mehta recalled. “When we heard RiseOn, we were elated and relieved that our hard work had paid off! It was a great honor!”

Mehta, Ghattas, Mohamed and Abou-Ghali will use their $5,000 cash prize for professional development.

RiseOn helps users navigate health insurance options.


The SimulaHealth Team

- Nanditha Lakshmanan ’19, from Livingston, N.J., studying biology. Career pursuit: high school biology teacher

- Sushni Mukkamalla ’19, from Plainsboro, N.J., studying biology. Career pursuit: obstetrician/gynecologist

- Anna Vallejo ’19, from Bergenfield, N.J., studying biology. Career pursuit: law school

The SimulaHealth team - (from left) Nanditha Lakshmanan, Sushni Mukkamalla and Anna Vallejo

It was the recent passing of a dear friend, also a Highlander, that prompted the three biology majors to compete in the Health Care Transformation Challenge.

“We didn’t know how much he struggled with his mental health,” said Vallejo of their pal. “All of this was really a tribute to him. … It’s so much more personal, because the main criteria they wanted us to focus on for this project was that millennials, people in my age group, are the least likely to seek help.”

In less than three months, they conceived of and designed an app they named SimulaHealth and created pseudo screenshots — honoring their late friend, who was from the Philippines, in the process. “Simula” is a Filipino word meaning “to begin” and reflects the purpose of the app: “to begin on the journey to health.” Also, the app incorporates the color red for the NJIT dorm, Redwood Hall, where he lived. And the letter “S” in the logo symbolizes infinity, because “we’re saying that mental health and starting that healing is always infinite. There’s no beginning or end, it’s just always there, so we really want to emphasize that,” Vallejo noted.

SimulaHealth offers a trio of options for users to both understand behavioral health symptoms and access behavioral health and other practitioners. First, the app features interactive simulations of how an individual struggling with mental illness would feel and what they would experience during various scenarios — for example, a person with anxiety preparing to give a presentation might be sensitive to bright light and have shortness of breath. For individuals already coping with mental health problems, the app can lead them through mindfulness exercises to help them work through their dilemma. 

Second, it matches users and providers through what Vallejo describes as a “Tinder for health care,” taking into account such preferences as gender, languages spoken and weekend hours. And third, it allows users to archive their digital records and input information about doctor visits, medications, etc., on their phone.

The SimulaHealth team took second place in the competition and received a $3,000 cash prize. Lakshmanan, Mukkamalla and Vallejo will put their winnings toward mental health initiatives, which may include a new student organization at NJIT that centers on “what makes a good life, what makes a good person … to really focus on how to make an impact on campus, on other people’s lives [and] in the community,” Vallejo said.

SimulaHealth (logo at top) focuses on mental health (bottom).