20 Canadian ideas to improve child health win support from Grand Challenges

Twenty Canadian projects have won Grand Challenges funding, among them an Uber-like connection that can help get pregnant women in Kenya to health care; a 3D printer project to provide orthotic devices for Nepali children with clubfoot and scoliosis; and a microchip that can figure out what pathogen is causing diarrhea in children in Bangladesh.

An Uber for pregnant moms, new ways to diagnose malaria are among innovations to get money for field tests

Children under five in Mali are susceptible to pneumonia. The Canadian Red Cross will test a device that could improve diagnoses. (Canadian Red Cross)

An Uber-like connection that can help get pregnant women in Kenya to health care; a 3D printer project to provide orthotic devices for Nepali children with clubfoot and scoliosis; and a microchip that can figure out what pathogen is causing diarrhea in children in Bangladesh.

These are among 20 Canadian projects that have won funding through Grand Challenges, which is awarding $2 million to Canadian innovators with ideas that address issues of child and maternal health.

On Monday, the program announced 20 winning projects, seeking out creative solutions to health-care problems in developing and middle-income countries. Each will get about $100,000.

​All of the projects are at the idea stage and the seed money is meant to test whether it is worth further developing them, says Dr. Karlee Silver, vice-president of programs at Grand Challenges. Projects are chosen for their "boldness," the skill set of their teams and the feasibility of testing the idea in the field, she said.

Grand Challenges Canada is part of an international initiative to support bold innovations to address health and development problems and is funded by the government of Canada and other partners. It has been running since 2011, and this is the eighth round of funding. Silver estimates about 20 per cent of projects prove to be worth taking to a larger scale.

"The money allows us to adapt the technology to get it right," says Dr. Richard Lester, founder and chief medical lead for WelTel, the Vancouver non-profit that is developing the Uber-like ride-sharing service that will help pregnant women in remote areas of Kenya get to medical care.
Women in remote parts of Kenya could be connected to private drivers via text message so they can get a ride to health care. (WelTel/Uberlance)

WelTel has already had success with a text message or SMS service to check in on Kenyan patients with HIV.

Texting works even in remote areas

"Even in the most remote areas of northern Kenya, people have access to cell service to send texts," he told CBC News.

The challenge now is to connect pregnant women in communities without health care to a network of private drivers who can take them to a clinic if they start to feel ill or go into labour.

Dr. Lester said ambulances are rare in these areas, but there are many drivers with private vehicles who would welcome a few extra dollars from carrying women to health care.

"Some of the investment will go to seeking out partners on the community level and figuring out the potential," he said.

The WelTel team would like to train some of the drivers in first aid and has hopes of finding an NGO that could help defray the cost of the ride-sharing service, he said, both developments that can now be investigated because of the funding.

Nikolai Dechev, project lead of the University of Victoria 3D printing project, hopes to create low-cost, effective, comfortable braces with a 3D printer to treat children with clubfoot, a misaligned foot, or scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.

Low-cost brace for clubfoot, scoliosis

Many children with these conditions in Nepal go untreated, Dechev says. "It depends on their family's resources and how far they live from Kathmandu. If they have to ride the bus for six or seven hours, it's basically not affordable."

"Our dream is to ship one roll of plastic and the printer and print something on demand," he told CBC News. A 3D printer does the measuring and can create a customized brace that fits a growing child for about $40.
A 3D printer is used to create a scoliosis brace. (University of Victoria)

If it proves successful, it could also be a cheaper orthotics alternative for children in developed countries, Dechev said.

The project team is working with doctors and an orthopedic surgeon in Nepal and it could be two years or longer before it's known whether the braces are viable solution. 

Ricelsa Gem Otico, project coordinator, interviewis a new mom at Barangay Health Centre in Caloocan City in the Philippines. (Ding Zafe)

The other projects that won funding in this round:

  • University of Calgary: Developing a DNA-based test for malaria in pregnant mothers that will be tested in Ethiopia.
  • University of British Columbia, Vancouver: Developing a mobile phone app to improve diagnosis of sepsis in infants in Malawi.
  • University of Alberta, Edmonton: Developing a device that more accurately diagnoses pneumonia in children to be test in the field in Congo.
  • University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon: Will test a ground eggshell supplement that can be added to children's food to Ethiopia to boost calcium levels and prevent fluorosis, caused by excess fluoride that occurs naturally in the water.
  • University of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Developing a simple tool to detect obstructed labour that can lead to maternal and child death.
  • Amref Health Africa in Canada, Toronto: Testing a mobile app to diagnose malaria in Kenya, hoping to improve accuracy in diagnosis and reduce over-consumption of anti-malarial medication.
    Training for technologists and students on LAMP, a DNA-based test for malaria, at Addis Ababa University Biotechnology Institute, on June 28, 2017. (Dylan Pillai)
  • RQDN Labs,Toronto: Setting up a text-message based support system for new mothers with postpartum depression in the Philippines.
  • University of Toronto: Improving child nutrition in the Philippines with an instant ramen supplemented with Spirulina, a nutrient-rich algae.
  • University of Toronto: Developing an easy home test for bacteria in food and educating mothers in how to prevent food contamination in squatter camps in Egypt.
  • NuPhysics Consulting Ltd, Toronto:  Developing an inexpensive technology to keep vaccines cold in India to improve the rate of vaccination.
  • Canadian Red Cross Society, Ottawa: Developing a respiration monitor that helps community health workers to diagnose and treat pneumonia in Mali.
  • McGill University, Montreal:  Using a tablet-based training program in Cambodia to improve newborn care among health workers, with an incentive for those who participate.
  • The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, Montreal: Developing a test to improve diagnosis of tuberculosis in children in Malawi, The Gambia.
  • McGill University, Montreal: Using iPad technology to improve communication between nurses and rural community health workers working with expectant mothers in Burkina Faso.
  • Aerosan, Halifax: Processing fecal sludge from septic tanks and latrines into a cost-effective energy source for the brick-making industry in Nepal.
  • Aerosan, Halifax: Improving the business model for public toilets in Nepal by capturing biogas from an anaerobic digester and selling it to local businesses.
  • Dalhousie University, Halifax: Providing the Helping Babies Survive training program to clinic workers in some areas of Jamaica.
  • Sensoreal Inc., Montreal: A microchip that can detect the four most common gastrointestinal pathogens causing persistent diarrhoea in children, lowering the death rate in Bangladesh.

    Susan Noakes

    Senior writer and editor

    Susan Noakes is a senior writer and news editor with CBC News. She spent five years at newspapers in Hong Kong and has worked for the Toronto Star and Asian Wall Street Journal. At CBC, she has covered arts, science and business.