Second-year Daniel Yu wins the Prince of Wales Young Sustainability Entrepreneurs Prize

Second-year College student Daniel Yu has won the Prince of Wales Young Sustainability Entrepreneurs Prize, a highly competitive international award that celebrates entrepreneurs 30 years old and younger whose product, service or application contributes to sustainable living.

Yu’s startup, Reliefwatch, is a cloud platform that integrates with cell phones to help health clinics in developing countries track and manage their inventories. He was chosen from among 816 applicants from 88 countries and flew to England in late January to receive his prize from Prince Charles at a London awards dinner.

“It was very exciting,” said Yu, who majored in Near East languages and civilizations before taking a leave of absence from the University in 2013 to build his company. “This prize is really significant.”

The concept for Reliefwatch first gained recognition when it won second place in the 2013 Social New Venture Challenge, sponsored by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Social Enterprise Initiative at the Chicago Booth School of Business. It then moved to the Chicago-based digital startup hub 1871 for further development. In January, Yu and his five full-time staff joined the Chicago Innovation Exchange Business Incubator, on 53rd Street, where the company has operating space and mentorship opportunities.

Their chances for further growth seem bright. A day after winning the Prince of Wales prize, Reliefwatch was named one of the Entrepreneurial Eight, a group of elite college student startups that will compete at South By Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, in March, pitching their ideas to investors and entrepreneurs from Google, Samsung, Dell and more.

Yu says the idea for Reliefwatch started with a chance visit to a rural health clinic in Egypt during the summer of 2012. He had been in the region studying Arabic and decided to stay on to practice his language skills in Nuweiba, a small town on the Red Sea. In search of some ibuprofen one day at the local clinic, Yu noticed that all of the medicines on the shelves were expired. “I asked the pharmacist what was going on, and he told me that was the least of his problems,” Yu recalled. “He said he was stocked-out of many basic medications.”

Yu noticed that the Nuweiba clinic had no computer technology or Internet connection, but the pharmacist had a simple cell phone with text messaging capabilities. “It was a light bulb moment,” Yu said. “I started to wonder if we could use mobile phones to keep track of inventory and stock levels in rural clinics like this one.”

Back at UChicago, Yu did some research and found a model that inspired him—in East Africa and other developing regions, a widely used cell phone-based banking system facilitates all manner of bank transactions, from balance transfers to payments. He sought advice from Jerry Huang, senior program director of UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship. “In looking at problems in third-world developing areas, Daniel found that you don’t have to have the most up-to-date technology to make a big difference,” Huang said.

Yu assembled a student team to work with him. Eventually, their platform caught the attention of Global Brigades, a nongovernmental organization with health clinics in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Last spring, Global Brigades became Yu’s first client and now uses his mobile phone inventory system in its 42 clinics, which have digitized 14 million units of supplies.

“The Reliefwatch team has worked incredibly hard to get their technology in the hands of organizations who need it most,” said John Flavin, executive director of the Chicago Innovation Exchange. “The team is a great addition to the CIE, and we’re eager to continue supporting them as they grow their business, raise funding and deliver this important platform to key markets around the world.”

This year Yu plans to expand his staff as Reliefwatch embarks on its goal to add 10 new client organizations in 2015. Already, he is working to launch a program with the government of Benin to track drug vaccines. Plans are also underway in Liberia to monitor essential supplies for Ebola clinics—and count the number of new disease cases.

The work is more than full-time, but Yu says he likes it that way. “Work-life separation isn’t something that I have right now,” he said. “But this is by choice—I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”