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Canadian innovators win global competition to tackle maternal health Add to ...

A pair of innovative Canadian proposals aimed at cutting the horrific death rates of developing-world mothers and babies at birth were selected for funding from among 77 finalists in a global challenge.

Among the two Canadian winners was a University of British Columbia invention that transforms a simple cell phone – common even in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa – into a portable blood-oxygen tester; the second homegrown winner was a Hospital for Sick Children creation of “pre-natal sprinkles” to get critically needed, but unusually terrible-tasting, calcium into the diets of pregnant women.

“Few challenges are as persistent or heartbreaking as the health of mothers and children,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who opened the awards ceremony. “For too many people in too many places, what should be a moment of great joy ends in tragedy,” she said. “A woman in sub-Saharan Africa today remains 136 times more likely to die in childbirth than one in a developed country,” she added.

Winning the seed grant “enables us to get started, to develop the product and work with industry do the initial product testing in Bangladesh,” said Daniel Roth, a pediatrician at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. The idea of delivering nutritional supplements using “sprinkles” was originally developed for children by the hospital but this project “takes that concept and applies it to a different problem,” -- delivering supplements to pregnant women -- said Dr.Roth, who expects initial field trials within 12 to 18 months.

The “Phone Oximeter,” was developed by a team led by Mark Ansermino, a scientist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia. It will be field-tested in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where partners in the project are already working to identify mothers at risk because of high blood pressure.

“Midwives will use this to screen women during pregnancy,” Mr. Ansermino said, shortly after the winners were announced. He said the call for innovative ideas, partially funded by Grand Challenges Canada was “just a fantastic thing for researchers in Canada.”

The 77 finalists were winnowed down from more than 600 original entries in an unconventional attempt to gather bold ideas from around the globe and create a “pool of innovators” to address one of the most persistent development tragedies. Called “Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development,” it is jointly funded by Grand Challengers Canada, the United States Agency for International Development, Norway’s Foreign Ministry, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We wanted to mobilize a global community of innovators,” said Ms. Clinton, who has taken a personal interest in the effort.

“Seed” grants of roughly $250,000 each were awarded to 19 of the finalists Thursday. But there was evident disappointment among those awaiting the judges’ decisions on the larger grants – worth roughly $2-million – for proposals ready to be scaled up and tested. Three or four winners were supposed to be announced Thursday but were delayed. The organizers gave no reason.

“We need bold ideas that will make a big impact,” said Peter Singer, chief executive office of Grand Challenges Canada, an independent not-for-profit organization that is intended to deliver a special tranche of $255-million in federal funding for innovative heath solutions over five years.

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