Founder Feature: Neopenda
Very few digital health companies decide to develop products for low-income and low-resource settings. Founders Teresa Cauvel and Sona Shah decided to step up to this challenge with the development of their company Neopenda that is focused on designing a wearable device to monitor infant's vital signs in developing countries.
Originally starting their product development at Columbia University in 2015, Tesesa and Sona soon joined the Relevant Health Accelerator in Rockville, Maryland and began building a name for themselves, Today, their company has been featured by the likes of Forbes, Deloitte, Global Citizen, and Cisco. We caught up with Teresa to learn more about what led to Neopenda's founding and where the company hopes to be heading by the end of this year.
Interview with Founders Sona Shah and Teresa Cauvel
What inspired you to found Neopenda? How did the Neopenda team come together?
Teresa Cauvel (TC): We began Neopenda as a project in a biomedical design course we took together at Columbia University in 2015 while we were studying for our Masters in Biomedical Engineering. In the course, we teamed up out of shared interest in global health, and started learning about the problem of preventable newborn deaths in developing countries. After a rigorous semester of interviewing doctors and nurses working abroad, brainstorming concepts, and prototyping; we emerged with the beginnings of Neopenda: an affordable, appropriately designed vital signs monitor for neonates in overcrowded, under-resourced health facilities.
The idea behind the device is that if we can alert nurses when a baby is in distress, she knows where her attention is urgently needed and can provide more timely and appropriate treatment. We won a prize from Columbia for our idea, and used it to travel to Uganda after the semester was over to better understand the needs and conditions on the ground. On this first trip, we were inspired to pursue Neopenda full time, and form our social enterprise company. We witnessed in Ugandan hospitals and heard from the nurses and doctors that our device has the potential to change the way newborns are cared for in low-resource settings. This mission has driven us to spend the last two years bringing our initial idea of Neopenda to reality.
What was your background prior to starting the company?
TC: We spun our startup Neopenda out of Columbia University, where both co-founders, Sona Shah and I, earned Masters degrees in biomedical engineering in 2016. Sona, CEO, studied chemical engineering at Georgia Tech (2011) and subsequently worked as a Bioprocess R&D Engineer Eli Lilly. After spending time as a teacher and Engineering Without Borders volunteer in Kenya, Sona's passion for working in under-resourced communities continued during her research involvement with mChip, a point-of-care diagnostic device for HIV and syphilis developed at Columbia University. She has also worked at the TB Alliance, both in community engagement and drug discovery for medications that treat tuberculosis. I am the CTO and hold a BS in Bioengineering from Santa Clara University (2014).
My academic research background in biotechnology and cell-based therapeutics, including a fellowship at Dow AgroSciences and graduate work in the Nanotherapeutics and Stem Cell Engineering Laboratory at Columbia, spurred my dedication to finding innovative solutions to unanswered health challenges. Our team is supported by a strong network of advisors, and has grown under the mentorship of accelerator programs including Relevant Health, PULSE@ Mass Challenge, and the GE-GSBI Healthymagination Program.
How did you choose your target population and decide to design a product for a low-income, low-resource setting?
TC: At Neopenda we are passionate about improving access to quality healthcare for underserved and vulnerable populations. Newborns in low-resource settings are precisely such a population. While there has been progress in reducing infant and under-five mortality over the past two decades, newborn deaths now account for 45 percent of under-five deaths globally-up from 40 percent in 1990. The day of birth, and the following month, are by far the most vulnerable time for a child's survival.
Nearly 3 million newborns die annually, an 98% of newborn deaths are happening in the developing world.
Under the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, we are striving to end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age by 2030- an ambitious target the Neopenda wants to be part of. We are targeting a massive unmet need: a way to continuously monitor the status of many critically-ill newborns at once, so that healthcare workers know a newborn is in distress before their condition worsens, and can better manage the large numbers of newborns (up to 80 newborns for 2 nurses). Many efforts have focused on either preventing common illnesses or improving treatment, but nurses and doctors in places like Uganda still lack sufficient functional equipment to manage their patients.
In the U.S., a NICU nurse has thousands of dollars of monitoring equipment at each bedside. In settings like Uganda, nurses have to manually count heart beats and breaths, or share a device if there is one around. Currently, most hospitals in developing countries do not have the equipment or the staff to routinely monitor newborns' key vital signs. The sophisticated equipment on the market is prohibitively expensive, and furthermore fails to meet constraints such as power supply, durability, and maintenance in low-resource settings. To solve this problem, we have designed a low-cost, low-powered 4-in-1 vital signs monitor. Neopenda's solution will improve newborn health outcomes, empower healthcare workers, enable hospitals to use their limited resources more efficiently, and provide governments and NGOs with valuable frontline health data.
What measures does the wearable device collect from infants? How did you decide on these measures in particular?
TC: The Neopenda device continuously measures four key vital signs: pulse rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation (SpO2), and temperature. These parameters were selected based on the recommendation of neonatologists in the United States and in Uganda, who told us that these four vitals are important to track continuously in critically-ill neonates, because they can rapidly change if the baby is in trouble. For example, a premature newborn could cease breathing in an apneic episode, and if a healthcare worker is alerted they can use simple tactile stimulation to save its life. Neopenda's wearable monitors are wireless, and display data on a tablet where a nurse can view the health status of all the newborns in her care, and be immediately alerted when vitals go outside the healthy range.
Where is Neopenda currently being used?
TC: Neopenda is currently operating in Uganda, where we have visited over 25 health facilities around the country to understand the needs and conditions, and interviewed over 150 healthcare workers to get their feedback on our product. We are in the pilot testing phase, establishing the safety and accuracy of the device. We are planning for clinical trials over the next two years, which will evaluate the feasibility and impact of our solution within Uganda as well as in Liberia, Tanzania, and Côte d'Ivoire.
What are your next 3 milestones and goals for 2018?
- First, in early 2018 we are looking forward to completing our first clinical study with newborns.
- Then, we will be using the data and feedback from the study to work on our second major milestone of the year, developing the second version of our device. We will be refining the accuracy, miniaturizing the size, and making improvements for usability and robustness.
- Our third big goal for 2018 is to launch feasibility studies, where we will test the new version of the device in the field at multiple sites to learn what final improvements need to be made. We are so excited for the progress ahead of Neopenda this year that will bring us much closer to improving newborn health in settings in need.
Do you have any advice for others who are looking to develop health technology for low-resource settings?
TC: Global health is a really exciting space, and there is so much potential to improve lives by leveraging technology. At Neopenda we are strong believers in human-centered design, where product development starts with your users and understanding them as best as possible. We'd advise other innovators to spend time early on in the field with your users and stakeholders, so that the technology you develop is centered around their needs, and is created iteratively with them, not for them. Collaborative, cross-sector partnerships with local partners will also be crucial. And, don't be afraid to ask for help- It's a challenging, emerging space, and we are all improving our work by learning from and helping each other.