Three years ago, two biomedical engineers had the courage to travel to Uganda and discover why millions of newborns die of preventable causes. In this episode, hear how Sona and her co-founder Teresa created a social impact startup while still in grad school, and how you can tackle a Global Goal with field research.
- 7:50 Sona’s Story to Become a Social Entrepreneur While still in grad school, Sona and her cofounder headed to Uganda and decided to solve the problem they found at the newborn wards.
- 9:30 Tackling Global Goal # 3.2: Neopenda’s goal is to help end all preventable deaths for children under 5 years old with a simple vitals monitor.
- 15:45 Why is the Product so Disruptive? Sona talks about infrastructure and medical device problems in emerging markets, and the valuable data that their devices collect.
- 22:30 Business Model and Growth Path How will two biomedical engineers grow a company to enter and transform newborn health in an emerging market? Hear how to enter an emerging market with new technology.
- 32:00 Create A Career Around a Global Goal Chandler and Sona share what it takes to explore a problem you care about and create a solution. “You might come out of grad school with a startup… and be the happiest you’ve ever been.”
Three years ago, two biomedical engineers had the opportunity to travel to Uganda. They discovered that many hospitals did not have medical equipment and that newborn wards are overcrowded and undersupplied. They discovered that babies don’t make it out of the hospital for preventable reasons, and decided to do something about it.
After spending time at the wards in Uganda, Sona and her soon-to-be co-founder discovered the key problem with few nurses taking care of so many newborns at once. This meant that the nurses didn’t know when the babies were in trouble. Sona and Teresa then designed a wearable technology for newborns that continuously measures four vital signs and signals health problems:
- Pulse rate
- Respiratory rate
- Blood oxygen saturation
The vital signs from all the newborns in the room wirelessly connect to a tablet that the nurse holds. This way, the nurse can see the status of all the babies in the room.
“3 million newborns are dying around the world, and most of them are in emerging markets. Something like 80% of those deaths are preventable.”
How does Global Goal 3 Direct Tech development?
Although the rate of mortality for children under 5 is decreasing, the mortality rate of children under 28 days old has not decreased. Neopenda targets that problem specifically. Sona talks about Uganda as a great starting point, since there has been a 46% increase in the country’s spending on medical devices. Uganda also has one of the highest fertility rates of any country in the world.
Turning Overwhelm to Impact in Uganda
Chandler asks what the first visit to Uganda was like, and Sona mentions how much emotion is still there for her.
“It’s overwhelming…and it’s inspiration for us. When we go, we spend time in the hospitals to see what’s really happening. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say it’s overwhelming. We already have ideas of what our next products will look like… but it isn’t one solution that will fix everything.”
When there are 2 nurses watching 125 babies stay alive for the first 28 days of their life. Neopenda’s first product makes a huge difference, and Sona was moved to tackle the problem after walking by bed after bed of babies that had died unnoticed.
The Business Model: Who are Neopenda’s Customers?
Neopenda is for-profit, and they focus on emerging markets. “We are impact driven… and we see that emerging markets are a huge opportunity for us because there aren’t very many medical device companies specifically for emerging markets. That market is untapped.”
Neopenda will sell devices to private facilities in emerging markets because they have more purchasing power and less red tape to try new devices. The cost of acquisition is higher with private facilities while the team goes from hospital to hospital, but Neopenda is engaging health ministries (governmental organizations) to get to public health facilities. Finally, Neopenda is partnering with international NGO’s who already have a presence and distribution channels all over the world.
Private Hospital Partnerships
Many private hospitals in emerging markets are backed by faith-based organizations that have a lot of jurisdiction over the hospitals they work with. That means it’s easier for Neopenda to work with the organizations and the hospitals to find out what will best serve their infrastructure.
Sona says it’s unusual for a 3rd party company to provide medical devices through partnerships, and shares that they sell the monitors in packages of at least 15 to ensure the wards have more than one monitor. “We don’t want to be the only monitor in the wards,” Sona says, “but that is often what we see right now. So, it is displacing the market a little bit but we want to show the value of the product not just from how many lives we actually help, but also in helping them understand how we can help improve their efficiency and cost-effectiveness. How can they improve the retention rates of nurses… all kinds of types of value that we can provide with one device.”
Is the Market Ready?
Sona says there are some facilities that are excited to do pilot studies and some that are not as willing to change. That unwillingness impacts the sales cycle and rate of adoption. This means that pilot tests can become the inroad to make product adoption an obvious choice.
Sona talks about the divine as similar to the finger-clip you get when you get at the doctor to pick up your vital signals. The sensors connect with bluetooth to the nurses’ tablets. She talks about designing the product to work on low energy and without wifi. The next step, she says, is collecting data with the tablets for NGO’s and hospitals to better address the problem.
Chandler asks what else they will be able to do with all this data, and Sona brings up analytics for resource allocation. “Another level,” she says, “is that most wards are calculating statistics on the babies on paper.” Neopenda can collect all that information simply through the tablets. The tablets can run for 5-7 days on batteries, then recharge the battery with a standard micro USB cord. With Bluetooth, the tablets can connect without wifi, and the company will be able to collect all the data from the tablets to the cloud by connecting once or twice a month.
Sona talks about FDA approval, logistics, and the business model, and shares that Neopenda is about 1 year from commercialization. The company has opened a crowdfunding equity campaign and is moving through rounds of investment while the product pends FDA approval.
Emerging Market Challenges
As far as the challenges in emerging markets, Sona talks about medical device testing regulations. Many emerging markets do not have regulations for new device adoption, and they do not purchase devices. Most medical equipment is donated in these countries. “It will be a mindset shift,” Sona says. She mentions the “equipment graveyard” room in most hospitals in these markets, where donated devices without manuals or working parts pile up.
This is just one reason Neopenda is a for-profit model instead of a nonprofit. “The more profitable we are and the more successful we are as a company, the more babies we can help.”
How to Get Involved
Sona recommends several steps to start off as a social entrepreneur:
- Reach out to leaders in the industry you’re interested in, and reach out to projects or initiatives that are already happening.
- Follow your heart and interests!
- Get out to the field as much as you can and witness the problems there.
Sona says, “Choose a Global Goal, start doing some research, and you may come out of grad school with a company… and be the happiest you’ve ever been.”
- It takes a high commitment to address a Global Goal. The Neopenda device was designed specifically for the problems their customer faces. No wifi needed, long-term battery, and valuable data provision.
- Get in the field. Have you gone to explore your customers problems?
- Here’s a link to check out Neopena’s fundraising campaign!