Rice University’s Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies program won $15 million from the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition on Dec. 20, 2017, according to an official statement by the MacArthur Foundation.
NEST360°, an initiative by the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health aimed at improving newborn survival in Africa, was one of four finalists chosen from a pool of over 1,900 competitors. Each finalist presented their project to the MacArthur Foundation board on Dec. 11 for a chance to receive a $100 million grant, which was won by Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee.
“We’re doubly grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, both for its $15 million commitment and its confidence in making us a 100&Change finalist,” Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Rice 360° director, said. “Our whole team is committed to continuing our work to scale NEST across Africa in order to save 500,000 newborn lives every year.”
Richards-Kortum said the 18 months spent working on the project revealed that there has never been a better time to improve newborn survival in Africa.
“The political resolve, both internationally and among African nations, has never been stronger. The technology is attainable, and it can be delivered with a market-based approach that African hospitals can afford,” Richards-Kortum said. “The award from the MacArthur Foundation will allow us to begin right away.”
Maria Oden, Rice 360º co-director, said the NEST team plans to continue efforts to raise funds for the project, which aims to provide life-saving technologies to newborns that have been available in high-income countries for over 50 years. NEST plans to address this technology gape through creating rugged, affordable technologies, using evidence to drive demand for technologies and educating clinicians and biomedical innovators to lead the change to improve newborn health.
“It’s not the kind of project where we can say, ‘We’ll just scale it down and do 15 percent of it,’” Oden said. “We know that the key components of our plan ultimately are going to need to be done [to] address this problem in a really holistic way.”
Past donors include the Lemelson Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development and ELMA Philanthropies, according to Oden.
“Part of this process allowed us to start exploring who additional funders might be, but we’re not at a point where we could name who those might be,” Oden said.
Oden said NEST plans to use the next several months creating a plan to overcome a key barrier to the project: not all technologies needed are commercially available.
“A big part of the $15 million will actually be to take all the technologies that are not yet commercially available and get them to that point,” Oden said. “It is my hope and dream that in 10 years, we’re going to look back on this time as the beginning of the implementation of the whole plan that we’ve put together.”
Oden said winning the award would not have been possible without support from Rice.
“Everybody at Rice, especially the students, our colleagues and the administration, just really supported us in so many ways,” Oden said. “That makes me happy to be part of this community.”
Erica Skerrett, a Rice alumna (Will Rice ‘15) who works on the NEST team, is currently developing Kasupe, a syringe pump that safely administers magnesium sulfate to women suffering from severe preeclampsia. Skerrett said the initial design tested in maternity wards in 2015 was in a large aluminum box and looked nothing like a medical device.
“During my time working in Houston and Malawi, it’s been really interesting to see how much iteration and testing it takes to have something that already functions in the lab and then translate it to the patient’s bedside,” Skerrett said.
Skerrett said she hopes the award will assist in filling necessary full-time positions that were difficult to maintain when the team was mostly dependent on smaller-scale and device-specific grants.
“Biomedical devices are obviously extremely multifaceted,” Skerrett said. “Working with a greater number of dedicated staff will allow us to put more time into needs-finding, engineering, human-centered design, human factors and clinical validation.”
Meaghan Bond (Bioengineering Ph.D. ‘16), a member of the NEST team, said NEST360° created an entire mock African nursery with technologies developed by Rice and a radiant warmer that came from India a week before the competition.
“We had a ton of students and staff involved in the creation and refinement of the room, and I am so proud of how beautiful it turned out in Chicago.”
Leah Sherman, a McMurtry College senior who has worked on multiple projects including a mechanical breast pump through Rice 360° over the past two and a half years, said she is proud to be part of NEST.
“I am extremely happy for all of the people who spent countless hours working towards this goal,” Sherman said. “I am excited to see how they will use this funding to increase their impact.”
Pelham Keahey, a graduate student in applied physics and a leader of the NEST Technologies team, is also the leader of the Bilispec project, one of the NEST technologies highlighted in the 100&Change pitch. According to Keahey, Bilispec is an easy-to-use, affordable machine designed to diagnose jaundice by quantifying serum bilirubin levels from a drop of blood.
“The NEST team is an amazing group of people to work with, and I couldn’t be more excited about what we are going to accomplish,” Keahey said. “It has been a long road getting here, but this is just the beginning.”