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Filtering pollution one nostril at a time

Last year I followed a team of Biodesign fellows from India as they spent six months at Stanford learning the biodesign process: identifying medical needs and prototyping solutions. The Indian fellows brought to Stanford a mindset called jugaad, which is a Hindi word for an inexpensive, innovative solution.

Two of the three fellows were back in town last week to present their latest jugaad, designed during the second half of their fellowship in India. Their prototype was a top 10 finalist in the Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge, held April 8-9 in San Francisco. The challenge was funded in part by Stanford's Center for Innovation in Global Health.

The team had spent time surveying medical needs in India, and realized that air pollution was a significant cause of heart disease, asthma and stroke in Delhi, where they are based, and also in other cities. The team wore masks one day – the only solution available to people who live in polluted cities – and experienced for themselves the reasons masks are not popular. Not only are they are uncomfortable, especially in Delhi’s heat, they can signal tuberculosis.

Shashi Ranjan, one of the fellows, said a cab driver was leery of picking them up when he saw the masks and people generally kept their distance.

With these experiences, the team decided to develop an air purifier than can be worn comfortably (and invisibly) inside the nostrils. Such a device could prevent diseases associated with pollution without the associated stigma.

When I spoke with Ranjan and Harsh Sheth, the second fellow who was in town, they said many aspects of biodesign in the United States and India are similar, but others are quite different.

Take distribution. In the United States, companies have a well trod path into hospitals and clinics. In India, each doctor makes an independent decision about which devices to use. There’s no hospital-wide purchasing system a budding company can tap into.

Of the eight years of Indian Biodesign fellows so far none have devices on the market, but some are getting close.

“The Biodesign fellows who came before us are leading the way in creating a landscape for manufacturing and distributing devices in India,” Sheth told me. Debayan Saha, the third fellow, stayed in India to continue working on their device.

Ranjan and Sheth told me they took into account barriers in manufacturing, distribution, funding and intellectual property that other fellows had experienced when designing their own device. With those precautions, they are hoping their jugaad makes it from the prototyping bench to noses across India and beyond.

Previously: Mealworms win top prize in Bay Area Global Health Innovation ChallengeStanford-India Biodesign fellows develop prototype device to improve success of pacemaker implantsSuccess breeds success: Early innovators in India created a sense of possibility and Stanford-India Biodesign co-founder: “You can become a millionaire, but also make a difference”
Image by Emma Jespersen

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