Innovators from Washington state blend high-tech research and pragmatic application to create cool, surprising and even downright weird global-health inventions.
“It looks like a wet suit,” says Anurag Mairal, picking up a pile of thick blue material decorated with bands of black Velcro and bright yellow numbers, “But actually it’s an anti-shock garment.”
I’m at the Westlake Avenue lab of Seattle-based global-health nonprofit PATH. Mairal is showing off one of its recent inventions — a suit that uses NASA technology (developed for use at the space station) to address one of the leading causes of maternal deaths in the world, excessive bleeding following childbirth. Women are strapped into the suit, which applies pressure to constrict blood loss long enough for safe transport to a hospital.
It’s a clever blending of high-tech research and pragmatic application. And it’s just one of many cool, surprising and even downright weird global-health inventions coming out of Washington — the state Bloomberg ranked the “Most Innovative” in the country earlier this week.
“We’re willing to take risks, and we’re willing to fail,” says Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Washington Global Health Alliance, a center for global-health innovation, and they “combine [that] with a culture of compassion and a desire to help worldwide.”
The results I came across at PATH’s labs, affectionately referred to as “the ultimate MacGyver shop” by one employee, are pretty interesting.
They’re working on a technology that can turn vaccines into powder form so they’re cheaper and easier to transport to remote areas.
Then there’s “Ultra Rice”— a pasta-like product that can be fortified with vitamins to prevent malnutrition and is undetectable when mixed with regular rice.
Want to pasteurize breast milk for safe sharing and storage? PATH is developing a cellphone app for that.
But PATH isn’t the only local shop working on cutting-edge global-health products. BURN Design Lab of Vashon Island has developed an energy-efficient stove to cut down on smoke inhalation from traditional cook fires. A “pest control” company out of Woodinville, SpringStar, invented a mosquito trap being used to help control Dengue fever. And Cascade Designs (traditionally known for high-end camping gear) has produced a new, affordable water-treatment product for sale in the developing world.
But I promised you weird, and if none of that qualifies, what about a pair of pants that gives birth to a baby?
“PartoPants,” developed by the Seattle-based nonprofit Pronto International, are a pair of loose scrubs modified to include approximations of female reproductive parts, fitted with bags of fake blood and paired with models of newborn babies (complete with an umbilical cord and placenta). These pants can be used to simulate birthing for medical trainings around the world.
The “PartoPants” are a favorite of Cohen’s. She says these advancements embody our region’s spirit of invention with their combination of simplicity and the “wow factor.”
That wow factor is crucial not only to developers and funders here in Seattle, says Beth Kolko of Shift Labs , a company that its website says produces “beautifully designed” and “human-centered” technologies for use around the globe.
“If you’re building consumer products in the U.S. people talk about ‘having to delight the consumer,’ ” says Kolko, who believes that successful products for any market, even poor ones, means attractive form blended with useful function.
To that end, Shift Labs is now working on a piece of medical equipment, a “drip clip” to help moderate IV fluids in “resource limited settings.” It looks like a smartphone.
“Just because it’s a medical device doesn’t mean you can’t still delight the consumer,” Kolko says.
According to Cohen, futuristic IV drips, magical rice and lifesaving wet suits are only the beginning of what Washington innovators can contribute to improving global health.
“If we can provide that seed funding, then we’re off to the races,” she says, daydreaming about a not-so-distant future when 3D printers might print medication in any corner of the world. “It’ll just continue to grow and expand and amaze us all.”
One pair of birthing pants at a time.