Realizing real-world application in Rwanda

Rice teams take their technology overseas

BY JESSICA STARK
Rice News staff

With more than $1 million in prizes up for grabs in the Rice Business Plan Competition, there was a lot at stake for the Rice infantAIR team as it's members took the floor to present their technology, "Baby Bubbles," a continuous positive-airway pressure device for aiding infants' breathing. But by then the team had already met its most important judges: the stakeholders in Rwanda who would use the device.

Rwanda Photo"Visiting the neonatal wings of several hospitals and seeing infants who were clearly having difficulty breathing was a very sobering experience," said Jocelyn Brown, the team's undergraduate engineer. "The design team and business team had always been excited about our product, but seeing the need in person made me realize the huge responsibility we had in trying to implement the device. At that point, our course grades didn't really matter -- we had a much larger motivation for designing and commercializing the device."

The infantAIR team was part of a unique global health technology commercialization class offered in the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business and taught by Marc Epstein, distinguished research professor of management. Other teams in the class were Life Packs Inc., whose product is a suite of medical backpacks; SmartDrip, whose product is an intravenous-therapy drip monitor; and Easy-Dose, whose product is a clamp to regulate dosing for oral syringes.

The technologies were developed by undergraduate students involved in Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, which is led by the BioScience Research Collaborative's Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and founder of the Beyond Traditional Borders program.

This is the second consecutive year four teams made up of four Rice MBAs have traveled to Rwanda with two faculty members to commercialize the innovative health technologies. It is the first year the Rice 360º undergraduates joined each team as technical advisers.

"Working directly with the undergraduates -- the inventors of the devices -- was so helpful," said Will Pike, an MBA student on the infantAIR team. "Jocelyn was amazing. She fit into our group perfectly, and her technical expertise was complementary to ours about business. She was probably our best presenter too -- she'll ace any business communications course."

The collaborative learning didn't stop at the hedges; the teams learned a lot from the Rwanda businesspeople they were working with.

"We had the opportunity to meet with some of the highest officials in every institution related to health care there," said Vani Rajendran, the engineering undergraduate for the Life Packs Inc. team. "Going to the country was an essential part of developing the business plan. Seeing Rwanda firsthand helped us understand the need for our products as well as the value while also getting a sense of how easy or difficult the technologies would be to implement."

Rwanda helped stoke Rajendran's passion for global health. She will travel to Lesotho this summer for a two-month internship through Beyond Traditional Borders to field-test other technologies developed by the Bioengineering Department at Rice.

Even the children in Rwanda had something to teach the Rice teams.

"One weekend, a group of us drove out of the capital to go hiking in the mountains, where we ended up meeting a group of school kids from a local village," Brown said. "We were amazed that many of them spoke English and some even asked for our e-mail addresses. We joked that they were better at networking than we were!"

The notion of networking is one that has been impressed upon Pike during his time at Rice. He said that his education at the Jones School has introduced him to so many future business leaders with whom he can see himself collaborating.

"I think the Jones School did more than give me an education; it showed me how to succeed," he said. "I was able to find the right people at Rice. I have people to count on that I can do business with for the rest of my life."

In late summer he'll begin consulting, but he plans to spend the rest of his summer working to get infantAIR commercialized. The team's winnings from the Rice Business Plan Competition -- about $11,750, including first prize for Best Social Venture -- will help the team continue.

The teams were advised by Epstein and Maria Oden, professor in the practice of engineering and director of Rice's Oshman Design Kitchen, where the medical technologies were developed. Gale Wiley, lecturer of management communications in the Jones School, also joined the trip and blogged about the experience at http://ricembasinafrica.blogspot.com/.