Rice, Malawi Polytechnic partner to create innovative technologies

Tuesday, April 07, 2015 2:44 PM | Amy Kavalewitz (Administrator)

Collaboration aims to replicate Rice’s success in global health education

Faculty from Rice University’s Department of Bioengineering and the Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies are partnering with the University of Malawi to improve healthcare through invention by replicating the success of Rice’s award-winning, engineering education programs for global health and by promoting shared innovation between students at the two campuses.

With support from the Lemelson Foundation and Rice 360º, Rice’s Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Maria Oden and Ann Saterbak are leading a collaboration with colleagues at the University of Malawi Polytechnic’s new biomedical engineering degree program, the University of Malawi Medical School and at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, a long-standing Rice 360° innovation partner.

Rice undergraduates described low-cost, student-created healthcare technologies under development at Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen during a December visit by faculty and administrators from the University of Malawi Polytechnic's new biomedical engineering program.

“Our goal is to improve health care through invention by building and sustaining an international cadre of innovation leaders,” said Richards-Kortum, the principal investigator on a new healthcare innovation grant from the Lemelson Foundation. “To make a sustained impact on the health of the poor in the developing world, we must work to train engineers who can identify practical new technological challenges, infuse engineering skills with entrepreneurial thinking, and work across geographic and disciplinary boundaries with clinical, engineering and business partners.”

Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, also directs Rice 360º, an award-winning global health engineering program that incorporates problem-solving and hands-on learning activities.

She said the Lemelson-funded program will allow Malawi Polytechnic’s new bioengineering degree program, which admitted its first students this month, to replicate some of the best feature’s of Rice’s award-winning global health program. For example, Rice offers formal design courses that allow undergraduates to work on client-sponsored design projects related to global health. Those courses are supported by Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, a unique undergraduate design studio with the necessary equipment and supplies to create and evaluate technical prototypes.

As part of the new collaboration, Oden, a co-principal investigator on the grant and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, will work with Saterbak, Rice Bioengineering’s director of laboratory instruction, Richards-Kortum and other Rice and Malawi Polytechnic faculty to develop a similar engineering design studio at Malawi Polytechnic’s campus in Blantyre. Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, also in Blantyre, has partnered with Rice 360º to evaluate dozens of Rice’s student developed healthcare technologies. The hospital and the University of Malawi Medical School will partner with Malawi Polytechnic’s engineering design studio to offer similar opportunities for its students.

Oden said the Rice-Malawi partnership also will foster an “innovation ecosystem” based on two-way collaborations between students in Houston and Blantyre. She said the partnership will initially focus on creating technologies to improve neonatal survival in low-resource settings.

With prior support from the Lemelson Foundation, Richards-Kortum, Oden and colleagues at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital are already developing a new facility at the Blantyre hospital that will serve as an innovation hub and testbed for the “Nursery of the Future,” a suite of neonatal technologies that low-resource district hospitals can put into place for less than $5,000. The innovation hub, which was recently featured in UNICEF’s annual report, will offer students from Rice and Malawi Polytechnic a place to evaluate life-saving technologies under the supervision of the hospital’s pediatric specialists.

“Throughout the design process, students will be mentored by clinicians, professional engineers, industrial designers and business leaders,” Oden said. “This hands-on approach — which has worked well at Rice — fosters entrepreneurial thinking and helps students make the leap from a promising prototype to a sustainable product that can directly impact lives.”

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