When it comes to global health issues, Design that Matters didn’t want to be a one hit wonder. This is the story about how they decided to focus on newborn pneumonia.

First, Design that Matters improved adult literacy with the Kinkajou Projector, then they learned some difficult but valuable lessons through the design of the NeoNuture incubator. They applied those lessons and developed the FireFly, a phototherapy device, which has been used to successfully treat thousands of newborns with jaundice in developing countries. Rather than be a “one hit wonder,” the team is well on the way to solving other problems and saving even more lives.

Repeating Success

Timothy Prestero, the founder and CEO of Design that Matters, joked in his most recent TEDx Boston talk, “What if we’re the Macarena of design? One hit and then we’re under water.” He wants more than that.

The team had already realized that some of the most important problems in the world were outlined in the the United Nations’ Millennium Goals. Design that Matters had also learned that having partners who can take over after a product is designed and tested is critical. Their NeoNurture incubator garnished praise and awards, but failed to ever go into production because they lacked partners. They remedied that mistake when they built the Firefly, and its use continues to grow and more babies’ lives are being saved around the world everyday.

After the success of the Firefly, Prestero and his team faced what was, in some ways, an even greater challenge: repeating that success. But the team realized that the set of problems they wanted to work on, or could work on, is fairly narrow. 

“We’re doing a lot of global health,” Prestero said. “Global health has many aspects. For example, if we were going to work on drug discovery or virology, we would have to pull blood samples. If we were going to work on a surgical tool, like for open heart surgery, we might have to work with animal testing or cadavers.” 

Design that Matters is a very small design shop. They are simply not qualified to work with blood or animals.

“Think Ikea furniture and Post-It Notes,” Prestero said.

Design that Matters determined that designers are great at repackaging existing technology. So, they needed to work on the design of an existing device, which had the added benefit of having international standards. 

“I can pull a book, a reference, that tells me, ‘This is what success looks like with this device,’” Prestero said.

When Design that Matters narrowed down the areas where they were likely to have the most impact, they decided to focus on pulse oximetry.

The Pelican

A pulse oximeter is a device used to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood, and in developing countries, is one of the best methods of diagnosing newborn pneumonia. 

“Pneumonia kills more children under 5 than AIDS, TB, and HIV combined,” Prestero said.

Although the treatment for pneumonia is simple and readily available with antibiotics, it is difficult to diagnose, particularly in places where it overlaps with malaria.

 Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

One reason that doctors in developing countries struggle with diagnosing pneumonia is that pulse oximeters contain sensors that are expensive. Each one costs $35, and they are disposable. In other words, doctors use one sensor, then they throw it away. In developing countries, hospitals and clinics simply do not have the resources to use pulse oximeters as they exist today.

The team at Design that Matters decided to work on the problem of developing a pulse oximeter that works effectively, is reusable and that would tangibly and positively impact the lives of people in developing countries. They named their device the Pelican Pulse Oximeter.

Phillip Daniel is a mechanical engineer and was a student in the MIT and Rhode Island School of Design Product Design and Development course when he worked as a volunteer on the Pelican Pulse Oximeter. 

“We had to pick a project to work on as part of the class, and some industry sponsors came in and made presentations,” Daniel told Not Impossible Now. 

Design that Matters was one of those sponsors and the presentation impressed Daniel. 

“I chose the Pelican because it seemed like a project that would go on, even after the class was finished.”

The Pelican is still in the design phase, but the progress that Design that Matters is making backs Daniel’s belief that the project would go on and make a meaningful impact even after his course was completed.

“We have done our first phase of field research, and now we are developing 3-5 concepts that we will test with partners in the coming year,” Elizabeth Johansen, the director of product development at Design that Matters, told Not Impossible Now in an email.

‘They Are Changing the World’

Everyone who has worked on the Pelican project has learned from the experience. Daniel says that he learned “a lot about the type of background research when making products for users.” The human factor research that Design that Matters specializes in revealed some things that were surprising to Daniel. 

“We learned about how important it is how the medical device looks,” he said. “People don’t want friendly looking devices, they want technical looking devices like they see on TV — that looks like it could save their baby’s life.” 

Johansen said that in the process of choosing to work on a new kind of pulse oximeter she realized just how difficult it is to choose just one problem from among the many dire issues in the world. 

“It’s really hard to figure out where to apply effort,” Johansen explained. “Using the Millennium Goals is helpful because the UN and other organizations pull together information from so many countries and cultures, and tap into expertise that we would never be able to.”

Daniel, who expects to complete his master’s program at MIT next year, says that working with Design that Matters showed him how powerful just a few people can be. 

“It’s more tangible to me now, to see how work that me and a couple of other people can do that will change the world. Hearing and seeing the story behind Design that Matters, and how Tim started it was inspiring. Around 10 people are on full time at DtM and they are changing the world. It definitely made an impact seeing how few people can change the world. “

How Can You Help

Individuals, as well as corporate sponsors and nonprofit organizations, can help Design that Matters develop the Pelican. The team decided to do an experiment with crowdfunding on this project, and conducted an IndieGoGo campaign from April 23 to May 30, 2014. Their target was to raise $10,000, and they reached 228% of that goal — $22,767 — demonstrating that people want to help. They are always accepting contributions and donations.

Johansen said that the crowdfunding campaign “generated attention and excitement leading to other grants and donations for the program.” Design that Matters continues to work on developing the Pelican, as well as on other projects. They are a small group of people who are saving the world on a shoestring budget. 

Read More Stories in Our Design that Matters Series

Top photo courtesy of Design that Matters