In Uganda alone, nearly 600,000 newborns require medical intervention for complications at birth. That's a problem that Teresa Cauvel and Sona Shah are on a mission to solve. Neopenda, the health tech startup they founded in 2015, makes wearables that monitor four newborn vitals: Heart rate, respiration, blood oxygen saturation, and temperature.
Cauvel and Shah met at Columbia University, where they received master's degrees in biomedical engineering. The two partnered up in a bio-design class to create a prototype addressing an unmet clinical need, and eventually to develop a business model to bring that solution to life. It was during their first trip to Uganda when the budding engineers really put their early work on the project into context.
"We spent a lot of time in the overcrowded Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), watching the nurses do so much with so little," says Cauvel. "I heard firsthand from the doctors that vital-signs monitoring would make a huge difference in their newborn patients' lives." After the trip, Cauvel and Shah decided to commit to building company full-time.
Staying the course.
Naturally, making the product wasn't easy. "We started out in the lab doing grunt work, like testing the actual electrics in various ways. Then we made them using 3-D-printing cases," says Shah. "We did as much testing as possible without physically putting the product on a baby." The device, which is essentially a battery-charged sensor that tucks into a baby hat, wirelessly transmits data to a central monitor that alerts nurses when a newborn is in distress.
Shah and Cauvel reached their $40,000 Kickstarter goal in May 2016. The pair have already received more than $60,000 in grants and investments from Columbia Venture Competition and Relevant Health, a startup incubator in Rockville, Maryland. And recently, they won a $1,500 first place prize at the Women Entrepreneurs pitch competition at Columbia.
"A lot of my inspiration comes from the nurses and clinicians who tirelessly care for hundreds of newborns every week," says Shah. Those "hundreds of newborns" are no exaggeration. Intensive-care units in the developing world often have high patient loads, typically leaving 15 to 30 newborns under the watch of just one nurse or doctor. The majority of newborn deaths occur in the first few days after birth, and check-ups are essential to address potentially dangerous postnatal complications, according to a 2015 report from the United Nations Children's Fund. Fewer than a quarter of newborns in the least developed countries receive proper health checks within two days of delivery, the data says.
Key selling points.
Neopenda also offers the solution of cost. A typical medical-grade monitor in the U.S. costs $2,500, Shah estimates. They aim to reduce the cost to $50 per cap, including the tablet. (The system can handle 15 babies at a time.) Currently, the two are integrating user feedback from a partnering clinics in Uganda. Should Neopenda receive government approval, it can expand across East Africa (Shah and Cauvel anticipate the products to hit the market by the end of 2018).
"The progress we've made and support we've received in less than two years has been exciting," says Cauvel, referring to Neopenda's diverse board of experts--from a clinical professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego to the SVP of external affairs at the TB Alliance, a NYC-based nonprofit research and advocacy group.
One key adviser is Paul Oloya, Neopenda's in-country coordinator. His job is to get the company officially registered and legalized to operate in Uganda. "So many preventable newborn deaths occur because of inadequate equipment, staffing, and the delay in diagnosing treatment when it's urgently needed," he said. "Neopenda has the potential to change this."
Like Neopenda, several other companies are setting out to prove that wearables can do more than track the daily number of steps for fitness junkies. WAAA!, for instance, is a sensor module worn around a newborn's chest. Slotted into a silicone band, it tracks heart rate and respiratory effort levels to determine if a newborn is within healthy limits. Abnormal signs are transmitted to the companion gateway box via radio frequency.
The devices all aim to serve different functions that will work to improve a world where a life's start is the deadliest risk. It's a big fight to take on, but the two founders determined. "Our initial focus is on improving newborn health outcomes places where newborns are dying from causes that are preventable and treatable." says Shah. "We hope to do just that by 2021."