Tikkun Olam Investing: Using Innovation to Repair the World

Published: Feb 15, 2022  |  

Philanthropic entrepreneur and highly-acclaimed paediatric dentist

My professional life has been a tale of two worlds. On the one hand, I’ve followed my scholastic curiosity and business-minded drive, whilst on the other, I’ve been led by my deep-seated desire to heal and help others. In the popular view, the pursuit of knowledge and innovation is often seen as a selfish act, one motivated by ego and drive. Indeed, plenty of impressive advances in technology and society have been achieved by the sheer power of rugged individualism – such famous figures as John Parsons, the autodidactic JPL founder who revolutionised rocketry or world-changing inventor Thomas Edison come to mind. 

However, in my experience, I’ve discovered another model for innovation that I believe can be equally fruitful, one which allows all of us to be lifted up into a better future. It draws on a concept from Judaism I hold dear called tikkun olam, or “repair of the world.” This guiding principle reminds us that it is our responsibility to care for the world in which we live. Striving to imbue both my personal and professional life with an ethos reflecting this value, I found my way to medical entrepreneurship, where my hunger to learn and innovate could be perfectly married with my passion for healing and philanthropy. These seemingly disparate passions combined seemed in fact to complement and fuel one another. I was delighted to discover that I could be both an empathic healer and a savvy investor, who could support innovations that help repair the world.

I believe this model of tikkun olam investing holds wide potential for us all, but it requires a certain amount of recalibration. First, for those resigned to seeing money as the “root of all evil”, we must instead accept that we can intentionally use it as a catalyst that spurs the growth of the greater good. Second, we need to acknowledge that investing in the greater good is not always sexy. Changing the world is a romantic notion, and many philanthropists are lured in by attention-grabbing causes that make a big splash and raise their profiles. (Who wouldn’t want to end world hunger?) But not all dreams are moon shots, and plenty of the world’s pressing problems are small, even invisible, and far from glamorous. 

Right now, we’re seeing a rise in social entrepreneurship and ESG investing, and the more a topic is trending, the more likely people are to jump onboard. Yet many are drawn to this type of investing for the boost it gives their public image, and arguably it’s the causes with less “buzz” that are the most ripe for impact. For example, it’s hard to imagine something less glamorous than using the toilet, but Jack Sims’ work raising awareness about the global public health issue around sanitation has been enormously effective. In seeking out “causes” or issues to solve, we need to set our egos aside and put our goal of making impactul change first and foremost.

In my own career, I’ve personally discovered how making the biggest impact sometimes means taking the “unsexy” route in my work with Cytovale, which has pioneered ground-breaking technology for diagnosing sepsis. I’ll be the first to admit: Sepsis is not a sexy cause. We don’t often hear of kids saying “when I grow up, I’m going to cure sepsis.” As much as that may be true, tackling this issue has the potential to reverberate through countless lives. 

First, looking at the United States as our main example, sepsis is the number one cause of death in hospitals: According to the CDC, it takes the lives of 270,000 people every year in America, more than opioid overdoses, prostate cancer, and breast cancer combined. As a critical condition, sepsis requires rapid intervention, since the risk of morbidity and mortality can rise extremely quickly if sepsis goes untreated—up to 8% per hour of treatment delay—but clinical diagnosis is difficult as symptoms are nondescript, and current tests for sepsis take up to 48 hours to provide results. 

Cytovale’s new IntelliSep test stands to completely disrupt how we diagnose and treat sepsis, allowing clinicians to quantify the state of innate immune activity in under ten minutes, requiring only a routine blood draw sample. In providing a rapid, affordable sepsis evaluation, not only does the IntelliSep test help physicians save resources and avoid misdiagnosis, it empowers them to make quick, confident decisions to improve care, reduce mortality, and give patients peace of mind with early diagnosis. Sepsis might not be the first condition that comes to mind when pondering our world’s ailments, but the sheer number of lives that this new technology stands to benefit is undeniable. Early diagnosis can save lives, improve care, and free up physicians to help others, rather than second guessing their treatment. 

Supporting this type of life-changing innovation is precisely the kind of work I’m proud to do, but it’s also taught me important lessons on a personal level that the more I lean into my different strengths and interests, the bigger a difference I can make. Often we are encouraged to “stay in our lanes”— inventors invent, doctors heal, investors provide funds. Yet our world is complex, and our various issues require interdisciplinary approaches to be tackled effectively. 

With Cytovale, I was able to leverage my academic background to engage with innovative medical research while figuring out how it could be translated into a business model. The UCLA lab for medical engineering where Cytovale’s medical engineering was born is well-known and famous for their work, but this is only within their own specialised community. By stepping in and offering my help as an angel investor, I was able to bring this genius academic work to Silicon Valley, where it could be turned into a profitable startup. This, in turn, will allow a greater population to benefit from their vital work. Without academia, these life-changing innovations cannot come into existence. But without business, such innovations would remain in the lab. Marrying these two worlds gives us the perfect alchemy of interdisciplinary thought that can change the world.

Of course, part of humanity’s beauty is that we are all unique. My interests and strengths are different from yours, which means we all have potential to discover a new solution to existing problems. As such, I’d encourage you to consider: What are your disparate interests? How do they intersect with an issue in your community? What can you do as an individual to connect to this issue and help move us collectively towards a new solution? What are others doing that you could support or complement? Even if you are less technologically-inclined, there are inventors out there who are waiting to be discovered, who don’t know of an issue their tech could solve, and the softer skills of communication you might offer are crucial for such innovations to reach their target audience. Don’t underplay the value you might offer!

While big entrepreneurs make headlines by heading up inspiring projects like space travel, we need to remember that the unsung projects we can do here on Earth are equally worthy of our admiration. Applying our resources in a focused way to quotidian problems has enormous transformative potential for humanity. Let’s put all this big, beautiful, inventive energy behind the issues that afflict us. If we all collaborate across our diverse strengths, there’s no limit to what we can do together.

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