Not All Innovations Come from the Tech World; in fact, in Public Health, the Most Important May Not

Times of E reporter Skyler Rossi interviewed Alessandro Ciari, the assistant director of New York City-based Firefly Innovations, on Oct. 20. The group, which Ciari launched with longtime public health professor Terry Huang out of the City University of New York two years ago, is working to scale public health ideas and startups, focusing on underrepresented founders, such as women and people of color — 100% of its ventures are minority led. 

Public health innovators, particularly underrepresented ones, often struggle to find resources to scale and build a business from their research and ideas. Becoming a founder of a company allows innovators to potentially make a greater impact than working in government or for a nonprofit.

The problem is there’s limited sources that will provide the mentorship, investment and trust that’s necessary to support public health founders, Ciari said.

That’s what Firefly Innovations aims to be —  “a place where there are going to be other stakeholders who are deeply committed to the same challenge that you are.”

The group, which is a part of the City University of New York and funded through sponsorships from partners such as the National Institutes of Health and MUFG Bank, created a community of more than 100 public health experts, investors and mentors so that social impact-driven, diverse-led businesses in the space can scale. It’s also directly funding public health founders — startups that participate in its programs receive up to $5,000.

 “Public Health traditionally has not really focused on intersecting or interfacing with the business world so much,” he said “We are really breaking down those barriers between both of them.”

What works is connecting public health entrepreneurs with people who are experts in their domain that really understand the challenge innovators are working on, he said. Firefly offers resources that many programs do — educational sessions, networking, mentorship and, in some cases, small grants — but it’s hyper focused on public health. 

“In the health innovation ecosystem, there are not too many of these types of spaces, where you can actually get feedback that will actually be helpful and meaningful towards your development, and one that won’t actually make you feel maybe discriminated against or looked down upon because your solution is not taking the necessary route that many investors would hope for out there,” he said. 

Public health experts are key, Ciari said– they can offer an evaluation for businesses to determine the amount of impact they’re making, now and down the line. This looks different for every business, Ciari said. 

“Ventures being realistic about what they’re able to do with their own strategy is what is really, really important,” he said. 

Firefly is supporting innovations such as ShockTock, a platform for Indigenous clients to connect with Indigenous therapists, Ciari said. Its founder, Austin Serio, went through Firefly’s summer accelerator program and won its 2020 designathon– a fast-paced program for innovators to develop an idea. Now, Serio is getting ready to launch ShockTock’s first pilot, Ciari said.

This story has been updated to reflect that Ciari is Firefly Innovation’s assistant director.  

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit and connect with and