So far the Olympics have carried on relatively disaster-free, but it’s not for want of opportunity. While many of the world’s greatest athletes gather in Rio de Janeiro for a celebration of international cooperation and the purity of competition—as noble of ideals as you’ll find—much of the media coverage has instead centered on the list of maladies afflicting the Games, ranging from statewide doping programs to feces-infested water to the threat of the Zika virus.
There’s a reason some 300 unpaid Brazilian emergency responders held a rally at the Rio airport in late June, greeting visitors with a sign that read “Welcome to Hell.”
The startup community isn't perfect, but it excels in creating novel solutions to enduring conundrums. Which got us thinking: Are there companies out there developing technologies that could have been put to work in Rio?
As you’d probably expect (since we wrote a whole post about it), the answer is yes. Meet five startups that could have helped solve the problems plaguing the biggest sporting event of the year.
The problem: A massive doping scandal resulted in Russia’s track & field team being banned from this summer’s Games and highlighted the current inadequacies in drug testing in sport.
The solution: Pro Test Diagnostics
The most recent major development in the realm of anti-doping is the biological passport. The idea is simple enough: Test athletes early in their careers to establish normal blood values, then continue to test at future competitions to detect any abnormalities. But because the cheaters will always be ahead of the testers, it still doesn’t catch everything. Whether the Olympics even should drug test in the first place is another question entirely—but while they do, Pro Test Diagnostics is working on a better way.
The Sweden-based biotech is developing a way to test for autologous blood doping, the process by which athletes have their blood drawn, separated, and are then re-transfused with only the red blood cells; it’s a method useful for cycling or other endurance events and particularly evasive of modern testing procedures. Pro Test Diagnostics uses liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to detect molecular changes that occur in the blood during storage, potentially providing the best means yet for catching rule-breakers. The company has secured a grant from the World Anti-Doping Agency and plans to start recruiting participants for a study this fall. Pro Test Diagnostics is currently backed by the Umeå Biotech Incubator.
The problem: Federal investigators are probing into possible corruption during the building of Olympic venues. A series of scandals have embroiled Brazil all year, including the theft of billions from the state oil company, Petrobras, and ongoing attempts to impeach president Dilma Rousseff.
The solution: I Paid A Bribe
It would be nigh impossible for any single company to battle such entrenched systems of corruption. I Paid A Bribe doesn’t so much offer a comprehensive fix as it does a platform to help map the scale of the issue. Founded in 2010 and operated by the Bangalore-based nonprofit Janaagraha, the company’s website allows citizens in India to anonymously report when and where they were asked to pay bribes. The site has spawned imitators in other locales, including Yo Di Un Moche, currently operating in Mexico, whose name in Spanish literally means “I paid a bribe.”
Simply identifying instances of graft will not prevent them, but shedding light on a secondary economy previously bathed in shadow is a good place to start.
The problem: Incidence of the Zika virus has ballooned in Brazil; the disease is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, as it’s believed to cause microcephaly—essentially stunted brain development—in children of mothers who are infected. Multiple athletes have cited the virus as a reason for skipping the Games.
The solutions: SensoryGen and Greenlid
The two companies are using different approaches to combat the threat of disease-carrying insects. SensoryGen is developing a repellant made out of natural materials that’s designed to smell mildly fruity to humans but disgusting to mosquitoes. To do it, they’ve used machine learning to test tens of thousands of different molecules to identify ones that activate positive neural signals in one species and negative responses in the other. They think they’ve found the perfect recipe, but the company says its still two years away from bringing its product to market.
Then there’s Greenlid, the designer of biodegradable mosquito traps filled with water and insecticide designed to be placed outdoors. The Toronto-based startup is currently selling traps for less than C$3 each in Canada, and for every trap purchased, Greenlid donates one to charity. As a matter of fact, Greenlid already has a presence in Rio: The company donated about 250 traps to the Canadian Olympic Committee for use in Brazil.
The problem: A New Zealand jiu-jitsu athlete was kidnapped in Rio by men wearing police uniforms and forced to withdraw cash from an ATM. Three Swedish tourists were kidnapped at gunpoint. Crime is endemic in Rio, and as a whole, Brazil is home to 21 of the world’s 50 most violent cities, according to the Citizen's Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice.
The solution: Cityflag
Cityflag is an attempt to crowdsource crime-fighting. Citizens can use the app to report problems in their communities, ranging from infrastructure concerns to crime, and will have the functionality to attach photos and videos to their claims. The app aggregates the reports on an interactive map and sends it to public officials, while users can track the government response to the issues they raised—an attempt to increase transparency. To encourage participation, Cityflag also gamifies the reporting process, giving users rewards at local businesses for using the app.
Cityflag is still prelaunch, so there’s no data yet on its effectiveness. It’s difficult to imagine any one app leading to transformative change in some of the more crime-ridden corners of Brazil, but the idea of allowing the people who actually live in a community to have some role is certainly an admirable one.