Health & Science

Rice Team Nabs Major Inventor's Prize

Two professors of bioengineering at Rice University are the winners of a $100,000 prize for global innovation. Although they are free to spend it as they wish, the two women have decided to use the money to help premature babies in Malawi.

The prize is called the Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation.

It’s focused on inventions that help improve life in the developing world.

The winners must also work to include young people in that invention process. 

It seems an award tailor made for Rice professors Maria Oden and Rebecca Richards-Kortum.

Together they developed Beyond Traditional Borders, a Rice program in which undergraduates work in teams to design and engineer low-cost medical technologies.

Maria Oden says the students focus on solving medical problems in sub-Saharan Africa, where hospitals frequently lose power and conditions are rough.

“Some examples of projects from the past have been a bubble CPAP system that helps neonates who are struggling to breathe. We’ve also have had students that have worked on a dosing clip; it’s a device that helps makes sure that liquid medications are given very accurately. We’ve also had students work on a Global Focus microscope; it’s a microscope that at much lower cost can very quickly and easily detect tuberculosis or malaria.”

Watch video explaining the Bubble CPAP here

Oden and Richards-Kortum quickly hatched the idea to send the $100,000 to Malawi, to expand the infant ward at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.

“They will have 70 babies in this neonatal ward with just two or three nurses. Often, four or five babies in one crib. It desperately needs to be expanded.”

Rice undergraduates have been testing their inventions at this hospital for a few years.

One success story was that bubble CPAP, a breathing device for premature babies.

It’s constructed using two simple pumps meant for fish aquariums, and it costs only $400 instead of the $6,000 version used in U.S. hospitals.

Oden says they will also start a fund to spread the low-cost equipment to every hospital in Malawi.

The country has the highest premature birth rate in the world.

“Our thought is that you could create a neonatal ward at a district hospital that has the technology you’d need to address the major issues of newborn health for about $5,000 at each hospital.”