Next time someone says “innovation” and “Canadian” don’t go together, point them toward the Grand Challenges Canada program that gave out 15 grants of $100,000 each this winter to researchers.
Walter Karlen, a biomedical engineer at the University of British Columbia, is developing a method to diagnose childhood pneumonia – using a camera “oximeter” built into an ordinary cellphone. With the special software he is creating, he intends to measure the oxygen-saturation rate in a child’s blood. The majority of hospitals in the developing world don’t have expensive pulse oximeters that can alert doctors that a child needs specialized care for the disease. But even the most remote community clinics have access to cellphones. Two million children die of pneumonia each year, largely for lack of a diagnosis.
Karim S. Karim, an electrical engineer at the University of Waterloo, is developing a $1,000 X-ray machine using digital-imaging technology to test for tuberculosis. Typically, digital X-ray machines cost $100,000. Treatment is cheap; it’s the diagnosis that’s expensive and widely unavailable. One-third of the world’s population is affected by TB, and 1.7 million people die in a year from it. If Prof. Karim’s invention works, a network of TB clinics could be set up throughout Asia and Africa.
These are fantastic ideas, in more than one sense. Both aim at bringing health care out of distant hospitals and closer to villages. Both aim at creating business models based on high volumes and low margins. And they aim at doing so fast. If their innovations can be shown to work, Dr. Karlen and Dr. Karim will qualify for up to $1-million 18 months from now, from Grand Challenges Canada Rising Stars in Global Health, to get their projects up and running, with the help of partners in Africa.
It’s early to draw major lessons yet. Some preliminary lessons: The $250-million in federal support (for the Rising Stars and other Grand Challenges programs) stimulates a wealth of research. That research appears to have strong commercialization potential. Next, the “integrated innovation” approach that brings together new ideas in technology, business and society (such as creating a network of community clinics for TB) offers hope that great ideas and products will be designed with a market in mind. And finally, those approaches also offer promise for this country, which has no shortage of remote or aboriginal communities – and perhaps inner-city neighbourhoods – that could benefit from low-cost, widely available diagnostic tests.
Bill Gates has invested hugely in scientific discovery in his own, much larger Grand Challenges program, but has found that applying those discoveries in the developing world takes far longer than he expected. Mr. Gates knows a few things about how to change the world, but the Canadian approach may yet teach him something new about innovation.