Nurturing innovators and innovations

Man in laboratory coat adjusting a microscope.

A new model for frugal innovation today for impact tomorrow

India is a middle-income country whose health care landscape ranges from needs reminiscent of developed countries to infectious diseases prevalent in low-income countries. The vast majority of Indians cannot access or afford the medical technologies they need. More than 80% of the medical technology in India is imported, making it prohibitively expensive. Of course, India’s challenges are not unique; the vast majority of low- and middle-income countries face them.

India’s aspiration to become an advanced nation is predicated upon the nation’s ability to provide high-quality health care to its people at an affordable cost. Need-appropriate innovation that leapfrogs significant constraints is the key to solving this urgent challenge. What is required is a new paradigm in innovation that leverages the deep understanding of India’s needs and context by local innovators who are steeped in a frugal mind-set.

"The key is need-appropriate innvovation that leapfrogs significant constraints."The Stanford-India Biodesign program and the new School of International Biodesign (SIB) are rooted in this new paradigm. The SIB program is a Department of Biotechnology, Government of India–funded program managed by Biotech Consortium India Limited at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, with Stanford University as an international partner. The program brings together an interdisciplinary team of physicians, engineers, doctors, and researchers in its fellowship program. SIB fellows go through experiential learning and hands-on training in medicine, design, engineering, and business development. They identify unmet clinical needs through direct observation and intensive research of disease processes that are screened based on parameters such as potential impact. Potential solutions for high-impact needs are screened based on technical feasibility, competitive landscape, and stakeholder analysis.

Training innovation leaders today who will create technologies to heal humanity tomorrow has been at the core of SIB’s mission. Over the past seven years, the program has trained more than 100 innovators who have become the anchors of the medical technology ecosystem in the country. These innovators have invented more than ten technologies that are in active development and clinical evaluation. These three are representative of the range of SIB’s innovations:

  • Consure is a novel fecal catheter that solves challenges associated with a serious and underestimated problem—fecal incontinence. The start-up founded by innovators has completed product development, established scalable operations, successfully completed safety and efficacy studies, obtained patent grants in key jurisdictions, and recently received US Food and Drug Administration clearance for commercialization. Consure is a wonderful example of frugal innovation that will not only address a serious health problem in India but also bring down the costs of managing fecal incontinence in the developed world.
  • HiCARE LIMO is an affordable, cardboard-based, environmentally friendly immobilizer for lower-limb fractures. Similar in performance and superior in usability to more expensive metal immobilizers, it has been licensed to public-sector manufacturing and distribution company HLL Lifecare Limited, which is now introducing the technology to health care systems in India and internationally.
  • BRUN is an electronic feto-maternal wellness monitoring system in development that simplifies monitoring during labor and helps in objective decision-making, improving feto-maternal outcomes in resource-limited settings. The innovation has the potential to serve pregnant women in much of the developing world.

Collectively, the innovations from the SIB program will likely help tens of millions of people worldwide. Even more critically, the program has become a model for a country that produces an abundance of high-caliber physicians, engineers, designers, and researchers, leading to a multitude of SIB-inspired incubators across India.

Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.