Neeti Kailas : 2014 Young Laureate for Science & Health


Neeti Kailas, Young Laureate 2014.

“To me, design is about problem solving, and thinking about how I can have maximum impact on society. In a country like India, that’s never going to happen by designing the next lemon squeezer.”

Great things happen when an intense desire to bring about change is coupled with an equally strong aptitude. This story about a 29 year old designer from Chennai shows us one such instance.

Neeti Kailas is on her way to transform healthcare in India using her design skills. She has co-created a non-invasive portable device that screens newborn babies for hearing impairment.

For her work, Kailas has been recognised as a 2014 Young Laureate by the Rolex Awards for Enterprise and has been rewarded with a prize money of 50,000 Swiss Francs (Rs 33 lakh). The Young Laureates programme is meant to award grants to entrepreneurs under 30.

Together with her husband Nitin Sisodia, who featured in MIT’s TR35 list for 2013 ,  Kailas launched the Sohum Innovation Lab. The lab’s first product is a device to screen babies for hearing loss.

Kailas’s device works by measuring 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 these aural stimuli, the child cannot hear. The device is battery-operated and non-invasive, which means babies do not need to be sedated, as some previous tests have required. Since the device is inexpensive and portable, it can be used anywhere.

Their patented, in-built algorithm that filters out ambient noise from the test signal is also one of the major advantages of the device.

The device to detect hearing loss is tested on a baby at Vaani Vilas Hospital, Bangalore.

The device is still a prototype, and Rolex Award funds will allow Kailas to start clinical trials later this year. Her plan is to launch the device in 2016, first focusing on institutional (hospital) births, with the aim of screening 2 per cent of such births in the first year, before scaling up on an annually accrued basis.

Every year, some 100,000 hearing-impaired babies are born in India, but there is no routine screening countrywide to detect the condition, and the existing tests are expensive and require skilled health-care workers. Early screening is vital because, if left unaddressed, by the time the baby is six months old, a hearing impairment can impede the development of speech, language and cognition.

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