For general practitioner and tropical doctor Niek Versteegde, it is unacceptable that millions of people die every year from diseases that are easy to treat. He wants to change that. More than a year ago he shared his dream with, among others, medical product designer Bart Bierling. That was the beginning of GOAL 3, a start-up affiliated with Eindhoven University of Technology.
Many babies die unnecessarily from diseases such as dehydration, pneumonia and blood poisoning in African hospitals, says Versteegde. “If you recognize the symptoms of these diseases early, they are easy to treat.” However, nurses and doctors in Africa do not have the devices to continuously monitor a baby’s heartbeat and blood pressure, for example. Also, there is often only one nurse responsible for thirty babies. Daily care then takes precedence. GOAL 3 has developed a robust and easy- to-use smart monitor enabling the nurse to keep an eye on babies via a tablet.
Last week, during an online event, several team members presented the story of the journey GOAL 3 has made so far and their plans for the future.
Ten years ago, tropical doctor and co-founder Versteegde saw with his own eyes for the first time how hectic things are in a Tanzanian hospital. He was there for his training as a general practitioner and saw how few resources there are to provide the right care. He saw children die unnecessarily. It touched him so deeply that when he came home, he decided to set up a fund with friends to support the hospital where he was doing his internship at that time. He also specialized in tropical medicine and international health care.
With a good dose of additional expertise and after raising a considerable amount of money, Versteegde returned to Africa in 2015. He stayed for six months. It was a beautiful but difficult time, he says. Away from his wife, he worked hard and was constantly under enormous pressure. “If you haven’t been there, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it is to take care of thirty babies at the same time. Full of emotion, he tells about his namesake, Niek Mandela, a prematurely born baby boy, the son of a relative of one of the nurses in the hospital.
Beacon of hope
Versteegde visited the baby every day and texted frequently with the parents about the baby’s condition. The fact that he survived means a lot to Versteegde, he told us. “I tell this story often. What I don’t always say is how difficult that period was for me. I was there without my wife and was overworked. That little boy was like a beacon of hope for me.”
After those six months, Versteegde returned to the Netherlands, but his mission remained. He met Bart Bierling, who had started a project to monitor patients in Africa. In an earlier interview with IO, De Versteegde says that this meeting was the basis for GOAL 3. The start-up was named after the third sustainability goal of the United Nations: healthcare for all. The founders want to help nurses and doctors in developing countries find the right and affordable medical resources. “These are for the most part lacking,” says Versteegde.
Then came a monitor that can measure vital parameters such as heart rate and respiration, transmitting the measured data to a tablet. In this way, the nurses have an overview of all babies in a department. Ultimately, the goal is to have an algorithm that helps recognize signals of serious diseases, such as blood poisoning. This is crucial since the sooner you take action against that disease, the greater the chance of survival, says Versteegde.
Versteegde has found more allies for global access to healthcare. Since last year, the start-up has grown from five men to ten team members. And not just the start-up itself has grown, but its network is also expanding, including Job Calis, a pediatrician at the Amsterdam UMC medical center. Together with Calis, Bierling left last month for a hospital in Malawi for two weeks to test the first prototype, Impala 1.0. In January, Bierling will travel to the same hospital again for a six-month pilot.
Bierling says: “Most monitors do not work in an environment like Tanzania or Malawi. There is often insufficient power and maintenance is difficult. You just don’t have spare parts or a mechanic nearby. It really has to be able to take a beating and last a long time. Various robust sensors on the body measure heart rate, oxygen uptake and blood pressure. A plastic foil containing sensors goes under the mattress. “This is how we measure heart rate and breathing without making contact with the body,” says Bierling. “This foil can remain in place for about two years.”
With the results from the first pilot, the start-up will make a second prototype. For this purpose, a crowdfunding campaign will kick off before Christmas, says Jelle Schuitemaker, chief operating officer of GOAL 3, who developed the earning model for the start-up. He researched the market and the right way to approach it.
GOAL 3 focuses on medium-sized African hospitals that have just enough financial resources to purchase such a monitor and have the space to work with it. “We want to focus on a price of one dollar a day for a patient monitor. There is a multi-year plan which foresees reaching the break-even point in 2027. We are now going to test the monitor in a Malawian hospital. In the coming years we plan to have the first systems running there. After that, Schuitemaker wants to expand to other hospitals. Eventually, together with African entrepreneurs, the system will also be deployed in other countries.
The online event was intended to underline that the exploration phase is over, says Schuitemaker. “We are now going to test whether it works. And we are looking for the means to do that as quickly and as well as possible.” For Versteegde the event is “an invitation to everyone in the world to join us. Because,” he says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
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