New focus for university's global health efforts

DEC. 13, 2010


Courtesy of Embrace description of photo

This baby warmer, with special wax to retain heat, could lower infant mortality. Made by Stanford students, it exemplifies the sort of global health measures to be promoted by a new $8 million NIH grant.

The product prototype for a low-cost infant warmer, which could help save the lives of millions of low-birth weight and premature babies who literally die of cold every year in the developing world, came out of a graduate course at Stanford that focused on “extreme affordability.”

“It’s the class that made me want to come to Stanford,” said Linus Liang, a graduate with a master’s of computer science at Stanford, who together with his teammates from the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class, is now living in Bangalore, India, preparing to sell the low-cost substitute for high-cost incubators.

“The course combined all the different disciplines,” said Liang, who worked with three other graduate students in business, electrical engineering and management science, to design and market the mini-sleeping bag with an innovative wax that keeps it warm without electricity. They’re starting in India, where the highest percentage of low-weight births occur and hope to then offer it in Asia and Africa. “How many times do you get to work with diverse groups of people to create something that could greatly affect the world?” he said.

The course, offered at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, is an example of what Michele Barry, MD, senior associate dean for global health, would like to encourage on a campus-wide basis with a new $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health awarded over the next three years. She hopes to link programs, like the Extreme Affordability class and the medical school’s award-winning Biodesign program, that have been successful in innovating health-care solutions in the developing world, in order to collaborate with and learn from each other.

“We’re hoping that our collaboration with C-IDEA [Barry’s new initiative] will help us find great partners around the world with whom more success stories like the infant warmer can be written,” said James Patell, PhD, the Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management in the business school who teaches the Extreme Affordability course.

Programs at Stanford that address global health have started piecemeal across the campus, but there has been no coordinated effort to focus on the issue head-on. That will be the purpose of the infrastructure called C-IDEA: the Stanford Global Health Consortium for Innovation, Design, Evaluation and Action.

“The goal is to establish a multi-disciplinary consortium of schools at Stanford — from business to medicine to engineering — to advance affordable and feasible scientific innovation of drugs, devices and diagnostics for the developing world,” Barry said. “Stanford has built its public health activities around a non-traditional approach focused on innovation and design. To meet the needs of the growing health disparities worldwide we need to work together.”

Together, these programs can work toward solutions for injury prevention, neglected infectious and parasitic diseases and chronic non-communicable diseases of the developing world.

The first step will be to integrate the processes developed by four existing programs on campus:

  • The Extreme Affordability course whose successes include a cheap method of irrigation for small-plot farmers and a low-cost device for asthma care.
  • Biodesign, which teaches medical device innovation and has spurred the development of such devices as a low-cost ventilator.
  • The medical school’s SPARK program for drug and diagnostic development.
  • And the business school’s Global Management Immersion Experience program, which encourages MBA students to gain international work experience.

“We have some great programs in global health technology innovation that have started in the past few years,” said Paul Yock, MD, director of the Biodesign program and Martha Meier Weiland Professor of Medicine. “Typical for Stanford, these have been grassroots and entrepreneurial. What C-IDEA is providing is a way for these programs to communicate and cross-pollinate.”

Under the umbrella of C-IDEA, student teams from these four programs will go through a year of an integrated global health innovation learning process as developed by the separate programs but will vet each other’s projects. Economists and physicians from Stanford Health Policy will also lend their expertise by evaluating the device, drug or diagnostic for use in a targeted country.

At the end of the year, students present their projects to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the Stanford community at a one-day symposium. An external advisory board of local entrepreneurs and experts will help select five to eight of the projects for further funding to move forward in development and implementation.

"The concept of C-IDEA is to create dialogue amongst some terrific innovation programs already existing at Stanford and engage experienced social entrepreneurs within the local community,” Barry said.

“More Stanford students will be able to confront real global needs,” Yock said. “Our students have a deep awareness of the global community and its medical and environmental needs. It’s a perfect time for this funding to have a major impact.”

For Liang and his teammates, the Extreme Affordability class led them to found Embrace, a San Francisco-based non-profit which is developing the infant warmers at less than $200, a fraction of the $20,000 that incubators can cost. The class also spurred them to move to India to learn first-hand about the people who will be using the sleeping bags to hopefully save the lives of under-weight babies.

“A lot of times people develop a concept thousands of miles away in the West,” Liang said. “I’ve seen multiple cases where these devices don’t work in the targeted country. The Extreme Affordability course teaches that it’s important to understand the user.”

Embrace hopes to sell the sleeping bag warmers in India next year but will need to work with social scientists to understand how to change health behaviors in the field. C-IDEA is an example of how many fields of expertise can be involved in global health.

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