Inventors Gather to Prevent Maternal and Newborn Deaths

In Argentina, a car mechanic and some friends tried to copy a trick they saw on YouTube to remove a cork from an empty wine bottle with only a plastic bag. The mechanic, Jorge Odón was inspired by this novel method to design a new device that just might help mothers in developing countries give birth safely.

A recent event in Washington, D.C. brought together designers, inventors and global health experts to award funding to promising products and services that may prevent maternal and newborn deaths. The Saving Lives at Birth Challengeand DevelopmentXChange brought together 53 finalists competing for funding as well as the grantees being funded through the first two rounds of the competition. Each shared their innovations in a forum that resembled a cross between a science fair and TED Talk.

Globally, great progress has been achieved in reducing the numbers of maternal and newborn deaths. Despite these advances, an estimated 2.9 million maternal deaths, neonatal deaths, and stillbirths occur annually around the period that a mother is in labor. Many of these deaths happen in low and middle-income countries and could be prevented by inexpensive and simple interventions like antiseptics, medications, good nutrition or access to a trained midwife.

Mr. Odón's invention called the Odón Device received seed funding in a previous round of the Saving Lives at Birth Challenge. It's a simple-looking combination of a rod with a suction cup on the end, and a plastic sleeve that allows a health worker to safely deliver a newborn during a pro-longed birth. The device can be used instead of forceps (that may injure a newborn) or if no medical professional is available to preform a Caesarian section. This start-up venture has already gotten backing from the World Health Organization and a global medical devices company to scale-up after a final round of clinic trials.

The 2013 Saving Lives at Birth award nominees included a wide range of nonprofits, tech start-ups and universities from countries including Australia, Guatemala, South Africa and Uganda. The award nominees will each receive between $250,000 and $2 million to test or scale up their creations.

Convergent Engineering Inc., a U.S.-based medical devices company is developing an inexpensive, easy-to-use, handheld early-warning system that detects pre-eclampsia (high-blood pressure and protein build-up during pregnancy that can result in premature births or maternal deaths) weeks before the onset of symptoms. The system pairs a wrist strap embedded with inexpensive sensors and smart phone.

PATH, a U.S. based global health nonprofit invented a magnesium sulfate gel that simplifies treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia.

The 'Pratt Pouch,' a tiny ketchup-like packet that stores antiretroviral AIDS medication for a year can be used in home-birth settings to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child. The pouch was developed by Duke University and will be field-tested in Zambia.

Researchers at Mbarara University in Uganda developed an Augmented Infant Resuscitator (AIR) that gives instant feedback to healthcare professionals performing newborn resuscitation to reduce neonatal deaths from asphyxia and complications due to prematurity.

To improve the nutrition of pregnant women in Nepal, the University of Toronto has created a spray-encapsulated iron mix that will be added to tea leaves to reduce rates of iron deficiency.

The Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge is a joint endeavor between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, Government of Norway and UK Department for International Development.

The 'Grand Challenges' model allows for greater openness when seeking new ideas for addressing specific and persistent global problems. Many of finalists had not previously worked with aid agencies like USAID, while others were established global health organizations.

'If the traditional model was to hire a contractor to build a road, [then] the new model is to find and create partnerships with a diverse set of innovators to really work at ending extreme poverty in a sustained manner...', said Rajiv Shah, USAID's Administrator.

In addition to funding, the award nominees and finalists will receive mentorship and networking opportunities with potential implementing partners and investors to scale-up their innovations.