I wrote about Vodafone Americas Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project (WIP) last year, which is a contest designed to “promote innovation and increase implementation of wireless related technology for a better world.”

Since 2009, the Vodafone Americas Foundation WIP has awarded nearly $5 million to winners who developed unique solutions focused on the concept of “Connecting for Good” to help address critical problems such as the need for clean water, monitoring of vaccines, mobile health diagnostics, and other topics.

“The Wireless Innovation Project honors unique mobile innovations and disruptive ideas that have the potential to not only gain market traction, but also positively impact the global community,” said Chuck Pol, Board of Directors Chairman and President, Vodafone Americas Foundation.

Past WIP winners have gone on to future success through international publicity, various prizes and almost $10 million in additional funding. Last year’s winners involved a solution for wastewater management, technology to monitor water facility data, and a mobile stethoscope diagnostic app.

The project concept is simple: U.S.-based universities and nonprofit organizations are invited to compete. Generally the top three winners are awarded $300K, $200K and $100K, respectively. However, prizes for this year totaled $700,000: $300,000 for first place and $200,000 each for a second-place tie between two entrants.

“The 2016 Wireless Innovation Project winners illustrate how innovative mobile solutions can address some of the world’s most critical issues such as newborn healthcare, air quality, and one’s vision,” said June Sugiyama, Director, Vodafone Americas Foundation. “These winning technologies exemplify the core mission of these annual awards, to ultimately change the world through wireless technology, and we’re proud to recognize their potential to drive social good.”

Neopenda won first place for a device which monitors newborn vital signs. And, for only the second time in the history of the competition, there was a tie for second place, which was awarded to EyeSee and c-Air for their solutions addressing vision loss and air quality.

Examining the winners

First Place: Neopenda

Per Vodafone, “Neopenda is an affordable wearable newborn vital signs monitor that transmits data to nurses to help provide early detection when a newborn is in distress. Every year, millions of newborns die from preventable causes, and 98 percent of the deaths occur in the developing world, where monitoring equipment is not available due to high cost and limited resources. Neopenda is an affordable wearable newborn vital signs monitor that transmits data to nurses to help provide early detection when a newborn is in distress. Neopenda plans to use the Vodafone Americas Foundation funding to continue prototyping and used for clinical trials through Colombia University.”

I conversed via email with each of the three winners to get more insight into their motives and methods.

SM: “How did the idea come about?”

Neopenda: “As graduate students in a biodesign course at Columbia University, we were tasked with devising a technology solution to help combat the problem of high neonatal mortality in low resource areas. We conducted extensive research and stakeholder interviews as we tried to understand why newborn mortality rate is so much higher in the developing world than in the US. We found that a single nurse in resource-constrained settings like Uganda can be taking care of over 30 critically ill babies all at the same time. To make matters worse, they most often lack equipment to help manage these at risk patients and identify when a newborn is in immediate need of attention. We sought to find a way to provide these nurses with early detection that a newborn is in distress so that she can do her job more efficiently and effectively, and reduce preventable deaths. We determined that the simplest and most affordable way to do that was by creating a continuous wearable vital signs monitor that alerts when the babies’ vital signs go outside of a healthy range.”

SM: “How did you obtain funding/staff resources?”

Neopenda: “Our first funds came from competing in the Columbia University Venture Competition, and we used the money to travel to Uganda that summer to better understand the needs on the ground and get feedback on our designs. Since then, we have participated in an accelerator program that provided us with investment, we competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition and were awarded a $100,000 prize from Cisco Corporate Social Responsibility. We also recently successfully completed a kickstarter campaign.”

SM: “Were there any challenges or issues you had to overcome, and how did you approach that?”

Neopenda: “Our product and its application have several constraints that pose challenges to the development process, and as technologists we have been hard at work tackling these issues and assembling external expertise to help us do so most efficiently and successfully. Some of these product development challenges surround building a comprehensive solution in a very small, lightweight, and low-powered device that is above all accurate and safe for use on newborns. We are still in the process of optimization and miniaturization. With the guidance from our advisors, mentors, and consultants, we are diligently working on finalizing our solution.”

SM: “Can you talk a bit about the development/research/completion process for your solution?”

Neopenda: “During the early days of Neopenda at Columbia University, we spent significant time researching the background and need for our solution, in addition to creating initial prototypes. Upon returning from our needs assessment trip to Uganda, we began transitioning our solution from a prototype to a comprehensive solution through our acceptance and participation in the product-focused accelerator Relevant Health. In addition to having novel technology, we recognize the importance of developing a business and implementation strategy appropriate for low-resource settings. While we iterate on the design of the wearable vital signs monitor, we are continuously building strategic partners and strengthening our commercialization strategy. We are nearing small batch manufacturing of the product for the first pilot studies, and anticipate that a period of iteration will also follow the initial studies.”

SM: “How will the win help you achieve your objectives?”

Neopenda: “We are very honored and grateful to receive the first place prize in the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Project, and the funding and support from Vodafone will be crucial in helping Neopenda accelerate to deployment in low settings and start saving newborn lives. This award demonstrates tremendous support for our concept and mission, and we’re excited to be building momentum that will enable us to achieve the highest impact we can. The funding will enable us to perform accuracy, feasibility, and impact pilot studies at our partner hospitals in Uganda in addition to iterating on our design based on feedback from the clinicians and nurses who will be using our solution.”

SM: “What do you have planned for the future?”

Neopenda: “Our immediate next steps are to finalize our technology and the industrial design of our solution, begin preparing for accuracy pilot studies first in the US, and subsequently assessing feasibility and impact of our solution in Uganda. We are also looking forward to growing our core team and our business as a whole.”

Co-Second Place: EyeSee

Per Vodafone, “EyeSee is an end-to-end vision enhancement and tele-rehabilitation solution combining a smartphone and a compact head-mounted display to maximize the residual vision and enable independent living for patients with limited vision related to health problems. For example, EyeSee can help the millions of stroke patients, each year, suffering from Hemianopia – decreased vision or blindness in half the visual field – following a stroke. EyeSee plans to continue to refine their product and expand clinical trials with the funding from the Wireless Innovation Project.”

SM: “How did the idea come about?”

EyeSee: “One of the ophthalmologists at UCLA suggested that the optical vision enhancement solutions for hemianopic stroke patients were decades old and they were not as effective. At the same time, we witnessed the need for independence in two hemianopic stroke patients that we personally knew. There were quite a few products and projects on assistive technology and navigation for the blind. However, we could not find any effective product for the low vision community and specifically those with hemianopic visual field loss.”

SM: “How did you obtain funding/staff resources (if applicable)?”

EyeSee: “The UCLA Department of Ophthalmology provides young investigators with a small funding mechanism to support innovative/exploratory research projects. We used these funds to build two preliminary prototypes of EyeSee.”

SM: “Were there any challenges or issues you had to overcome, and how did you approach that?”

EyeSee: “Yes. For example, a hemianopic patient who wears prescription glasses for reading had difficulty using the head-mounted display over the top of their existing regular glasses. We were able to find custom-designed frames that mount the corrective optics to the head-mounted display. A number of patients preferred to wear contact lenses while using the head-mounted display to eliminate the need for custom-designed frames. Additionally, since we have a wide field-of-view camera, straight lines at the edges of images (videos) curve outwards. This is due the non-uniform optical distortion. As result of this distortion, patients experienced severe distortion at the periphery of the images projected on the head-mounted display. To remedy this problem, we devised and implemented a novel, real-time lens distortion correction method to compensate for the non-uniform optical distortion and provide patients with a natural video display experience.”

SM: “Can you talk a bit about the development/research/completion process for your solution?”

EyeSee: “Fifty patients with hemianopia will be enrolled to assess the effectiveness of the technology. EyeSee’s impact on patients’ vision and thus, quality of life will be evaluated. Specifically, we will investigate how tasks such as visual scanning, walking, search, and reading can be improved when patients with hemianopia use EyeSee in their environment.”

SM: “How will the win help you achieve your objectives?”

EyeSee: “With this award, we can continue to refine our product and expand clinical trials with the funding from the Wireless Innovation Project.”

SM: “What do you have planned for the future?”

EyeSee: “The EyeSee project is an important stepping-stone in the development of a vision enhancement and rehabilitation tools for patients with visual field defects that have resulted from other vision disorders. Our next product will target a large proportion of the low vision community. Unlike persons with total blindness, these individuals have useful remaining vision that can be enhanced by EyeSee.”

Co-Second Place: c-Air

Per Vodafone, “The c-Air team is working on a project that uses a computational sensor for rapid air quality quantification, enabling on the ground as well as drone-based 3D mapping of toxic emissions from pollution sources like highways, airports or factories. There is an urgent need for detection and quantification of air pollution around the world as 7 million people die annually from “pre-mature death” due to health effects of air pollution. The c-Air team is working on a project that uses a computational sensor for rapid air quality quantification, enabling on the ground as well as drone-based 3D mapping of toxic emissions from pollution sources like highways, airports or factories. The team will leverage the awarded grant to create multiple prototypes and to help expand into new regions.”

SM: “How did the idea come about?”

c-Air: “Our research lab at UCLA is focusing on creating new computational imaging and sensing platforms using mobile technologies. We believe a very important application area that our technologies will make significant impact is on environmental monitoring, and more specifically air quality screening.”

SM: “Were there any challenges or issues you had to overcome, and how did you approach that?”

c-Air: “Rapid and accurate analysis of acquired images of particulate matter extracted from air samples is demanding, and we have approached this challenging problem by developing a smart distributed image analysis and reconstruction framework that is based on cloud computing.”

SM: “How will the win help you achieve your objectives?”

c-Air: “This Wireless Innovation Project funding will help us to field-test and deploy a cost-effective and high-throughput air-quality quantification platform for particulate matter, and address the need for accurate and on the spot spatio-temporal characterization of toxic emissions from various pollution sources (e.g., highways, airports, bus stations, factories, buildings, burns) as well as fires, explosions, accidents, etc. Furthermore, we will develop sensing payload modalities that can be attached/connected to a mobile-phone and a drone. Working together, these mobile systems on the ground and in air will constitute a smart pollution monitoring network, enabling real-time monitoring of the evolution of pollution and its movement trends that will aid in the development of risk mitigation strategies to protect public health.”

SM: “What do you have planned for the future?”

c-Air: “After successful validation and field-testing of this technology platform through this award, our team is interested in taking the technology out of UCLA for commercialization. Our mobile air-quality measurement platform will evolve into an easy-to-use, hand held, and low cost device that will provide individuals the ability to assess air quality in real time. In developing countries, especially China, India and much of South East Asia, exposure to poor air quality is emerging as a leading cause of pre-mature death. Today, there are no devices that provide the accuracy and range of air particle counting and identification that our technology can deliver, available at an affordable price. Providing consumers with an inexpensive device that integrates highly accurate computational imaging and mobile sensing, connectivity to proprietary algorithms combined with a simple, informative user-interface will enable people in areas of the world that are at highest risk to become aware of their environment and take appropriate measures. As our research and development evolve, we plan to apply the same integrated solutions toward bio-aerosol species identification. This will further enable consumers to detect the presence of pollen, mold and other hazardous, potentially lethal, bio-aerosols that effect healthcare workers and security / military personnel.”

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