July 26, 2018

10 brilliant technological innovations to save moms and babies

Marissa Chmiola
Communications Officer

For many mothers and babies around the world, the first 48 hours after birth are the most dangerous of their lives. For eight years, Saving Lives at Birth—spearheaded by USAID—has challenged problem solvers worldwide to create innovative solutions to make birth safer and save lives. Here are ten incredible innovations from this initiative:

Many newborns struggle to breathe. While in developed countries, doctors use CPAP machines, these devices are too costly for most health facilities in low-resource nations. Fortunately, innovators at Rice University have developed a low-cost solution—the Pumani bCPAP. Delivering comparable treatment at 1/15th the cost, the Pumani has tripled the survival rate of babies with respiratory distress.


Blood pressure (BP) disorders like pre-eclampsia are a leading cause of maternal death. BP cuffs have been used to monitor BP since the early 1900s, but they can be hard to maintain and read by less-skilled health workers. A startup named Biospectal is reinventing this approach. It has developed the OptiBP, a cuff-less smartphone app that allows instant, accurate BP monitoring through a fingertip.


Affecting 60% of newborns, jaundice can cause brain damage or death if left untreated. In low-resource nations, doctors often don’t have access to costly lab equipment needed to diagnose the disorder. That’s where the BiliSpec comes in. Developed by Rice University, this handheld, battery-powered device can diagnose jaundice within two minutes using just a $0.05 paper strip and a drop of blood.


Even a small dip in a newborn’s temperature can put her life at risk. Continuous temperature monitoring is key to detecting issues early, but in overcrowded health facilitates, it can be hours between readings. To address this gap, Rice University developed the Neonatal Temperature Monitor—a simple, affordable tool to continuously monitor and display infant temperature, alerting staff of problems.


Malaria during pregnancy is dangerous for both mothers and their unborn babies. Researchers are studying whether a promising new malaria vaccine candidate—Sanaria’s PfSPZ vaccine—could offer a solution. The research team will test the vaccine in pregnant women and monitor the mothers and newborns post-birth. If successful, the project could radically change malaria management in pregnant women.


Poor water and sanitation in low-resource health facilities can expose moms and babies to infection at birth. Chlorine is a commonly used disinfectant, but supply chain issues make it hard for facilities to ensure a steady supply. PATH and MSR Global Health created an innovative, low-cost tool—the SafiStation Chlorine Generator—to produce chlorine on site using just water, salt, and electricity.



While stillbirths are common in poor regions, increasing evidence suggests that non-breathing newborns are often misidentified as stillborn when they have heart rates (HR) and could survive with resuscitation. To address this gap in care, researchers developed the NeoBeat, a low-cost, belt-like device that takes seconds to put on a baby and provides a continuous digital display of newborn HR.


Jaundice is common among newborns. Fortunately, if found and treated early it is also curable. To facilitate diagnosis and treatment in low-resource areas, innovators developed the Bilikit, a comprehensive package of low-cost tools to manage jaundice. The kit includes the Bilistick, a rapid, hand-held, portable diagnostic device, and the Bili-Hut, a portable, high-intensity phototherapy device.


Blood donation shortages in Africa can leave health workers with few options if a woman is hemorrhaging blood during childbirth. Attendants often resort to using a soup ladle and gauze to try to salvage and recycle a patient’s own blood. The Hemafuse pump by Sisu Global Health is a cost-effective, hygienic alternative. This tool sucks up blood, filters it, and transfers it to a bag for reuse.


Over 100,000 women die annually from postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) or excessive bleeding. PPH is treatable, but the tools widely used to control dosage are too costly or infrastructure intensive for low-income nations. That’s a problem Shift Labs hopes to solve with DripAssist—a low-cost, battery-powered tool that constantly monitors medicine flow via an IV drip, sounding an alarm if it fluctuates.


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Photo credits: PATH/Doune Porter; Pumani bCPAP: 3rd Stone Design, GHTC; OptiBP: GHTC: Bilispec: Rice University, 3rd Stone Design; Neonatal Temperature Monitor: GHTC; PfSPZ vaccine: Leiden University Medical Center, GHTC; Safistation: PATH/Adam Drolet; Neobeat: Laerdal; Bilikit: GHTC, Bilimetrix srl Trieste, USAID, Little Sparrow Technologies; Hemafuse: Sisu Global Health; DripAssit: Medgadget, GHTC