Neopenda is working to save lives in under-resourced communities 

Read this interview with Sona Shah of Neopenda, an mHUB member company pivoting its vitals monitoring technology, neoGuard, for use in adult and youth populations. Originally published in the mHUB blog.

Nearly 3 million newborns do not survive their first month in low-resource settings, but 80 percent of these deaths could be preventable with the right tools and they have created one to start lowering that number

mHUB member, Neopenda, is a Chicago startup that is evolving health tech in markets that need it the most with its revolutionary product, neoGuard.

This device sends vital signs data wirelessly from multiple infants to a single tablet and is designed specifically for under-resourced communities who often have one nurse to take care of more than 80 infants. It records pulse rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation, and temperature; and collects continuous sensor data at the point of care. To date, the company has raised $2.5M in funding to get this product to market

In this member spotlight, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder Sona Shah tells Neopenda’s story.

Where did your idea and value proposition start?

My co-founder, Tess, and I started about five years ago when we were both getting our Master's in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University. We teamed up in a bio design course and started to explore why the newborn mortality rate is so much higher in low-resource settings overseas than it is here in the U.S., like Uganda where the rate is 10 times higher. We then started doing some initial stakeholder interviews, but there's only so much that we could do from a desk in New York

We received some funding from the university and went out to Uganda to do a proper needs assessment. While there, we went to different facilities in four cities to understand what some of the most pressing issues were. What we found was that there are just so many critically-ill newborns in the facilities and not enough nurses to help care for them. In some cases, as many as 160 newborns filled neonatal units with only two nurses to care for them. The nurses were frantically running around trying to figure out which patients needed their attention. In the process, some newborns would go into distress and pass away from preventable causes. So, that is the first problem that we’ve set out to solve: how can we help nurses identify when a patient in distress so they are able to provide timelier and more appropriate treatment? But we realized that the solution to this problem isn’t novel. We've realized that there are plenty of ways that nurses can identify when a patient is in distress through vital signs monitoring which is something under-sourced communities lack access to. 
The overarching issue in emerging markets and low-resource settings is that this equipment just doesn’t exist. That's why we started Neopenda, to design medical technologies, particularly for more resource-constrained environments. Our technology allows low-resourced hospitals to have a full view of each patient’s vital signs in one screen, making it easy to alert nurses when a patient needed assistance. 

What led you to mHUB?

We moved to Chicago after grad school and have been based here full-time ever since. In 2018, we participated in TechStars and got connected into the broader Chicago tech ecosystem. We started out in 1871 where we built the foundational elements of our business. As we grew, we were looking for opportunities leverage the Chicago network to really advance our efforts. Our biggest needs were on developing hard technology including prototyping and manufacturing, which is expertise that other incubators in the city just didn’t have. We’ve found a home at mHUB where we can access the member community, mentors, and prototyping equipment; which are all very important to us. Since being here, we’ve been able to transition from prototype to design freeze on neoGuard. Additionally, we were able to establish a relationship with a contract manufacturer, build tooling, and complete a pilot build with them.

How has your business grown?

We started out as a team of just two people, which is small. That meant a lot of hustle and work. We’ve now grown to six people after closing a seed round in Q1 of 2019. Our Program and Research Coordinators are based in Uganda full time, our leadership team and Supply Chain and Operations Lead are here in Chicago, and our Embedded Engineer is in Denver. We've been able to reach several milestones with our wearable vital signs monitor, neoGuard, including the completion of several clinical trials in the U.S. and in Uganda to demonstrate the safety, performance, and accuracy of the device

We finalized our device design and have secured a contract manufacturer for production. At the beginning of the year, we had completed all final validation and were preparing to launch the product. Then, the coronavirus pandemic caused chaos all over the world. In response to health needs, we shifted strategy a to adapt our neonatal monitor for youth and adults. We have a few pilots now and are our device for remote patient monitoring both in the US and in emerging markets. 

What’s next for Neopenda?

That is a little bit difficult to tell, because things are continuing to evolve rapidly. The silver lining for us right now is that we have a device that can really make a difference in the fight against COVID-19. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for vital signs monitors globally, and we've been able to advance our efforts significantly to meet that need. As a result of this shift in the technology to apply beyond infants, we have been able to dramatically increase the opportunity that we have to help patients around the world. We've also started expanding our efforts and scaling to new countries much faster. We have a pilot that we'll be starting in Kenya soon and are also exploring executing a pilot in Tanzania. Over the next several months, we're transitioning to commercial launch. Currently, we're in process with regulatory authorities for emergency use authorization, and as soon as we have that regulatory approval, we'll be able to start marketing and selling products globally. Next year, we'll be focused on growing our reach and making sure that we can impact as many patients as possible. We're also increasing our fundraising efforts to make sure that we can continue to grow the team and support the scale of our business.

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