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Innovation saves lives at birth

by Wendy Taylor
Wednesday, 17 February 2016 20:26 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Argentina, a car mechanic's experimenting ended up inventing a method to deliver babies stuck in the birth canal

Every minute, ten women and babies die in childbirth, most of them in developing countries where access to quality care is limited. Sadly, tools that could save these lives exist, but often they are too expensive or simply not available. In order to save these mothers and newborns, we need to deploy technologies, tools and approaches that are cheaper, simpler and faster. These life-saving solutions are within our grasp like never before.

Scientists and entrepreneurs around the world are now imagining and creating the tools we need. The problem has been that investment in this area was seriously lacking - private sector investors often deem early-stage innovations too risky or the markets too small. But ignoring these innovations in health care is simply not an option.

That’s why over the last five years Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development has taken the approach to source, rigorously test, and prepare to scale innovative, cost-effective maternal and newborn health solutions. That includes providing the innovators customized business and scaling support and helping link them to the right partners for scaling success. And these solutions are working.

The Pumani bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (bCPAP) is a great example. In Malawi, acute respiratory infections are among the leading causes of child deaths, but the standard solution to help babies breathe is a machine that can cost up to $6,000. Jocelyn Brown, a student at William Marsh Rice University, knew there was a better way. She engineered a low-tech version using a shoebox and a Nalgene water bottle that reduced the cost by an astonishing 87 percent - a price that hospitals in developing countries could afford.

With prototype in hand, Brown needed funding to test this device in developing country settings. Saving Lives at Birth stepped in. With this support, and follow on funding from the USAID Malawi Mission and the ELMA Foundation, Brown has been working with the product development company Third Stone Design to further test and deploy her breakthrough device. The device has already been used to treat over 1,800 babies, and it has the potential to save thousands more when further scaled.

Brown is one of 94 innovators in our network striving to break new ground in innovation, reach farther into communities that lack access to health care, and build markets that did not exist before. In the past five years, we’ve learned that no innovator can do this work alone. So every year, we bring our innovators together with investors, industry experts and international development organizations to invigorate their creative spark and help them foster new partnerships.

The Odón Device, another Saving Lives at Birth innovation, illustrates how important these partnerships are. While watching a YouTube video on how to remove a cork from inside an empty wine bottle using just a plastic bag, Argentinian car mechanic Jorge Odón had a revelation: Could this very same method be used to help deliver a baby stuck in the birth canal – a problem that kills tens of thousands of women every year? His persistence and passion led him to patent the idea, and medical experts in Buenos Aires helped him secure a partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) which led to funding from Saving Lives at Birth.

With seed funding and support, the device caught the attention of the medical technology company Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) that licensed the technology and agreed to work with WHO to develop it and bring it to market. Through follow-on funding from Saving Lives at Birth, the Odón Device is now beginning phase one trials to evaluate the safety and feasibility of the device in assisting delivery.

Without partnership and seed investment, the Odón Device would still be just an idea today--as would so many other life-saving innovations. But we still have far to go. Every year, 5.6 million women and babies – or roughly the entire population of Denmark – die within the first 48 hours of childbirth. That’s why Saving Lives at Birth has opened its sixth call for innovations. Over the last five years, we reached an estimated 1.5 million women and newborns, but we want to reach 1.5 million more.

We need to find, assist and encourage more problem solvers like Odón and Brown to access the resources they require to save lives. We need more groundbreaking innovators – brand new ones who dream of turning a concept into a reality and experienced ones who have already proven their innovations work but need a jumpstart to scale their ideas. We need investors who want to develop new markets to save lives. We need partners with deep knowledge of the challenges facing their communities.

We have the potential to deliver life-saving technologies that leapfrog over conventional ways of operating. Sometimes this means creating simple, low-cost ideas or improvements to existing innovations, such as what student Jocelyn Brown or car mechanic Jorge Odón did with their devices. And sometimes it means introducing disruptive approaches using cutting-edge technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver emergency blood supplies, to fundamentally change the game.

But one truth remains constant in every scenario: Neither we nor these innovators can do this alone. If you have an idea that can change the world, join us.

Wendy Taylor is the Director of USAID's Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, one of Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development’s implementing partners. The partnership, launched in 2011, includes the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada), the U.K’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).