How to Foster Low-Tech Health Innovation

A Seattle non-profit's model for uniting public health and the private sector, and what they've come up with


Anurag Mairal, director of technology solutions at PATH Health Technologies, says that it's time to start looking at low-cost innovations in healthcare differently. What should the road map be for an innovation? Should the product debut in a developing country first and then, evolve for the developed market or vice versa?

"We're at a point now, that companies cannot just keep adding bells and whistles to the same product to garner sales," Mairal told me.

So, given the increasing costs of healthcare in the U.S. and in Europe, companies are looking increasingly at simpler solutions that have the capacity to criss-cross border with a few tweaks.

PATH is a Seattle-based non-profit. But it's working with the commercial sector to scale, distribute, and market its innovations. That's Mairal's task. He's a new addition to the PATH team, after a noted career with Johnson & Johnson companies. He is symbolic of this merger between social impact and commercial viability.

His approach includes disruptive innovation (disrupt the global health system by changing the cost equation, moving away from a grants-based approach to a commercial-approach) and developing a market for said innovations. It's not enough to innovate. Must build a system to introduce these innovations to the market, advertise them, create distribution chains, and get them to the end-user.

PATH was started in the 1970s by three researchers: Gordon Duncan, Rich Mahoney, and Gordon Perkin. Their aim was quite the same: bring together public health and the private sector. Their focus, though, was slightly different: population control. So, their first innovations addressed population overload -- interventions to curb birth rates -- and were focused on Asia.

Since then, they've expanded their focus, looking at nutrition, water, sanitation, vaccinations, and reproductive health. Here are some of the innovations that PATH has piloted:

River blindness tests

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It looks like a pregnancy test but it's designed to identify river blindness (or a tropical disease, "onchocerciasis"), which is a preventable condition that has affected 37 million people globally, many in poor, rural communities situated near a water source. With a grant from the Gates Foundation for $1.8 million, PATH created this device. Traditionally, a health worker would have have to draw a vial blood, take it to a clinic where it can be processed, and then report the results several days later. The later strip, however, requires just one drop of blood from a finger prick and results are available in 20 minutes. Ideal for rural health workers.

Fortified rice

Rice is a popular grain, eaten by half the world's population. Fortified rice includes micronutrients such as iron, thiamin, zinc, vitamin A, and folic acid. PATH partnered with food purveyors in India, Brazil, and Colombia to produce the fortified grains to combat iron deficiencies, malnourishment, and anemia. Now, the grains are being coupled with school meal programs, such as in Burundi, to ensure that they reach school kids in low-income communities.

Mobile-phone milk pasteurization

Still in the works, FoneAstra is a system that uses mobile phones to monitor flash-heat pasteurization of donor breast milk. When a mother's milk is not safe to consume or is simply not available, human milk banks (HMB) fill the need; WHO supports the use of HMBs to address malnourished infants. However, the pasteurization process is tricky and healthcare facilities are hesitant to use this donor milk, unsure of its safety. By having a cell phone attached to the pasteurization device, FoneAstra enables these health clinics to monitor data on pasteurization, assuring them that the milk is safe to use. A pilot is under way in South Africa with the Human Milk Banking Association.


PATH created this design after consulting with women globally (in the US, South Africa, Thailand, and Dominican Republic) to ensure that they had single-size solution. It's more "discreet" than the condom, is easier to use than hormonal contraception, and enables women to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and some sexually-transmitted diseases. Now, PATH is commercializing this for sale with Germany-based health company, Kessel. But, it's also trying to figure out how the diaphragm could be integrated into family planning programs, given that it's a reusable product and would eliminate trips to a local health clinic. Those projects are under way in Uganda, India, and South Africa.

Vaccine vial monitors

Vaccine temperatures are critical - if too hot, they lose their potency. One of PATH's earliest innovations (1996) included the vaccine vial monitor- a square indicator on the label that lets health workers know if the vaccine is still safe to use. Modeled after a technology used in the food industry, it prevented WHO from dumping massive quantities of vaccines whose potency would be "unknown" after a day in the sun or in the hands of a health worker. UNICEF and WHO claim that this innovation saves the global health community $5 million every year.

Vaccine carriers

The opposite problem of vaccines getting too hot -- they freeze in the carriers. Coupled with ice packs, the vaccines can be at the risk of freezing which diminish their potency as well. Solution? PATH discovered a new way to use nontoxic, biodegradable phase-change material with ice packs to prevent freezing.

Female condoms

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Here's a product that debuted in the developed world but is being refined, and considered for the developing world as well. While you can find a female condom in drug stores, Mairal explains that they're not popular. Why? They're not always easy to use and can be uncomfortable. A more refined version, developed by PATH, has higher quality materials (i.e. 0.03 mm thin polyurathane film that allows for heat transfer), claims to be easier to use and feels more natural.

Digital video

Rather than showcasing pre-made videos on maternal and neonatal health, PATH's Digital Public Health Platform -- basically, video and projector equipment- is enabling rural women in Rajasthan, India to create videos, showcase their films, and answer questions. The community-driven approach includes teams of health workers for local solutions and storytelling.