09/02/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lessons of a Novice Bee Trainer

ErikKarits via Getty Images

As I sit here in a café in Paris, I have (for the first time in a long time) a moment to reflect on my experience so far competing in the Hult Prize. My team, Bee Healthy, is building our business around using bees to detect diseases in urban slums. We recently completed the six week Hult Prize Accelerator as well as our Clinical Trials at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. In a couple of weeks I will join two of my teammates, Tobias and Juliet, in India to wrap up our month-long pilot project in Mumbai and head back stateside to the Hult Prize Finals at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York. For now though, I have some time to share with you our biggest takeaways as novice Bee Trainers and the founders of Bee Healthy.

A bee in its harness, ready to be trained

First and foremost, never underestimate the power and potential of an ask. In just one month, we were able to plan, acquire approval for, and carry out our clinical trials training bees to detect diabetes on patients' breath. This never would have happened without a cold email to Dr. Allison Goldfine, the head of Clinical Research at the Joslin Center. We made a big ask, inquiring if we could use her patients' breath to train our bees. I still remember her first response "This seems far-fetched, but is certainly innovative." Even more far-fetched than training our bees to detect diseases, was trying to run our clinical trials in one short month, but with her help we were able to pull it off. It would have been very easy to assume that it was too far-fetched to be supported by the world's largest diabetes research center, but we didn't. We asked.

A group of bees in harnesses for training

Something else we learned while training bees, both literally and figuratively, was to stay on our toes. Literally, while strapping each individual bee into their harnesses, we had to stay nimble to avoid being stung. Figuratively though, we had to stay on our toes and make sometimes uncomfortable changes during our time in Boston in order to keep moving forward. Science taught us to make one hypothesis and test it fully until the end of the experiment. Business taught us to try out many ideas, quickly pivoting to get the best results. The combination of these two fields of thought has enabled us to make important calculated edits to both or business model and our clinical trials.

A final lesson that has been very important to all of us is knowing when to take a step back. We have all been working so closely on Bee Healthy, even commuting, living and eating together. It was all too easy to get bogged down with details. We would look at a single problem from many angles and spend a lot of time trying to figure out the very best way to solve it. By stepping away from the drawing board from time to time to do things like celebrate the Fourth of July or catch a baseball game, we could zoom out a little bit and get a more global view of the problem. These kinds of activities ended up being Bee Healthy meetings as we couldn't keep ourselves from discussing, but the environment we were in let us be more loosen up and let some of our best ideas in. Sometimes we would even decide that we didn't need the best solution.
We just needed a solution that could grow and evolve over time.

A bee "sticking its tongue out" (demonstrating a proboscis extension)

The Hult Prize Accelerator has really taken us for a wild ride. At times we were frustrated with the problems, with each other and even with bees trying to sting us. All of our hard work and frustration become so clearly worth it though, in just one moment during our trials. We used sugar water to train our bees to extend their proboscis (to stick out their tongues). Our plan was simple, to expose the bees samples, then reward them. We repeated this cycle until the exposure to a sample had them sticking out their tongues in anticipation of a reward. It was at this point that a bee was successfully trained. I can hardly believe I am writing this, but our months of work became so very worthwhile when our first successfully trained bee stuck out her tongue.

This post was produced by The Huffington Post and the Hult Prize, where teams of college and university entrepreneurs compete for $1,000,000 in funding for compelling social business ideas. The posts are written by the "Big 6" competition finalists. To learn more about the 2014 Hult Prize, please visit here. Read all posts in the series here.