Neeti Kailas is the 29-year-old business strategy head and co-founder at a Bengaluru-based start-up. But she is addressing a problem that has been around for decades and affects around 1,00,000 babies every year in India hearing impairment. With a vision to make an impact, she came across a “missing link” that nobody in healthcare was looking at.
And her hard work bore fruit as she was the only Indian, and one among five laureates selected for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, this year, from among 1,800 applicants from all over the world.
The awardees, all under 30 years of age, were lauded for their innovative projects that are helping tackle today’s challenges.
“I have made things in the past including motorcycles, medical equipment, mobile phones, interfaces and brands. I design for the objective, not the object. I believe that good design is always good business and good business is when it helps the society. In the beginning, I wasn’t looking forward to building this medical device. I just always wanted to have an impact. One of the incidents that pushed me in this direction was what happened over three years ago,” says Neeti, who graduated from Art Center College of Design, USA, and did terms M3 and M4, at the INSEAD School of Business, France.
“So, three years ago, in New Delhi, I met a boy who had profound hearing loss. And since he was already four years old, it was too late to save his speech. In other countries, you will come across people who can talk even though they can’t hear. In India, due to lack of technology and skilled personnel, you rarely come across such cases because we don’t have affordable and readily available technology to deliver similar results,” she says. Apart from this, Neeti always wanted to do something in this field as her childhood friend had faced a prejudice after being born with hearing problems.
“If a person has hearing impairment in India, there are very few opportunities for them. Be it social skills, job opportunities or even being treated fairly,” she says.
The numbers are staggering. There are 26 million babies born in India, every year. Of them, 1,00,000 babies are born with congenital hearing loss.
“If hearing loss is not detected before six months or one year, then the child ends up losing speech too. This was a big insight for me and my team,” says Neeti, who partnered with husband Nitin Sisodia, to work on the project. Nitin is a 2010 Stanford bio-design fellow and was named ‘innovator under 35’ by MIT Tech review, in 2013. Nitin brings in the ideas around engineering and innovation, while Neeti is all about leadership, management and design. Together, they started their company, Sohum Innovation Lab in 2012, and developed a prototype device which allowed newborns to be screened for hearing loss.
“The device measures the auditory brainstem response. Three electrodes are placed on the baby’s head to detect electrical responses generated by the brain’s auditory system when stimulated. If the brain does not respond to aural stimuli, the child cannot hear,” she explains.
The device is portable, battery-operated and babies don’t need to be sedated when the screening is going on. And since it’s an indigenous product, a screening can cost somewhere around Rs 50 to Rs 500.
“The reason why it’s difficult to use the screening developed abroad is because it’s for developed nations. The hospitals here can get noisy whereas if you want to use the available technology then you need to build another room or make a place available where it’s very quiet. Moreover, it’s not available at all the hospitals and even if it is, the tests can cost a couple of thousand rupees,” she explains.
Having received 50,000 Swiss Francs (Rs 33.6 lakh) to advance her project and with it, world-wide recognition, Neeti is now hopeful her vision of making a difference will become clearer.
“When we were working on the product, there were so many parents who wanted to give their child the best shot at life and would say, ‘Please can I get my child tested?’ With this recognition, more parents are going to know about the device and be aware. In the future, our aim is to be able to screen every newborn and we are looking forward to partnering with marketers and more experts from the health care system to get the prototype to the next level,” says Neeti.