How to do more with less. This simple solution – some would say mantra – is the driving force behind frugal innovation. As Western engineers and biomedical faculty move further into this space with exciting new devices and technologies, the next generation of students will be well equipped to introduce real—and affordable—change in the world.
Western’s Frugal Biomedical Innovations program, a multi-disciplinary initiative with Western Engineering and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry joining forces, supports projects seeking to design, develop and deploy innovative medical technologies that improve health-care access for patients in remote and low-resource communities for a fraction of the cost of existing commercial methods, more importantly without compromising quality.
These medical prototype devices are field tested and co-developed in partnership with the Africa Institute, BioNext Incubator and collaborators and health-care providers in remote areas of Canada and under-resourced regions of Africa. The field tests not only accelerate development but also provide the foundation for implementation and commercialization.
“I am originally from Uganda, which would be considered a low-resource setting and have worked in the health sector there for over a decade, so I have a deep understanding of the challenges faced on the ground,” said Margaret Mutumba, program director, Frugal Biomedical Innovations. “For me, it’s very personal that we need to make health care equitable and accessible for all.”
Mutumba, an experienced leader and public health expert, has worked as a consultant for the World Health Organization and serves as founder and CEO of MedAtlas, a telemedicine health-care platform that makes fertility care more accessible in Africa. She joined Western as the program’s first-ever director in January 2023.
“It became obvious to the world during the COVID-19 pandemic that we can’t just shut our borders to keep people healthy and safe. We’re all in this together,” said Mutumba. “Health is a global challenge, and we can all learn from each other.”
Real world, real investment
While the Frugal Biomedical Innovations program is just getting started as a concentrated collective at Western, many faculty members across campus have been working in this field for years. All the projects underway are partnered with research collaborators in remote Canadian communities or African academic institutions. In support of the projects, 15 catalyst grants were recently announced for teams led by faculty from Western Engineering and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
James Lacefield, cross-appointed to both faculties, is a biomedical engineer with expertise in biomedical signal processing and ultrasound imaging.
An avid proponent for frugal innovation, Lacefield is leading a team of engineering students to develop prototypes of a low-cost smart toothbrush that will help children with intellectual and fine motor impairments develop effective brushing skills and habits.
The team is also developing a low-cost teledentistry system to facilitate detection of cavities and dental plaque for patients in rural and remote regions of Kenya, who lack access to dentists and dental hygienists. The work is being done in collaboration with Dr. Regina Mutave James and her team at the University of Nairobi.
While developing new frugal technologies is key, another pillar of the program is enriching student experiential learning through practical training. Lacefield says Western students are driven by these types of opportunities.
“Assisting those living in under-resourced areas of the world and helping solve some of their problems, medical and otherwise, fits well with the social mission of most Canadian universities, and especially the awesome collection of people working together here at Western,” said Lacefield.
“Based on my personal experience, today’s students really gravitate to this type of work. It’s the type of thing that motivates them. And that’s so important because students really power what we are trying to achieve.”
Home and away
By developing a program built on cultivating partnerships with other academic institutions, multinational medical device companies, and people living and working in remote and low-resource settings, researchers like Emily Lalone can scale innovations equitably, recognizing each community in Canada or around the world faces different circumstances. Frugal innovation allows developers the chance to allocate the exact designs, tools and resources needed to reach an equal outcome for everyone seeking assistance.
Lalone, who directs Western Engineering’s Human Biomechanics Laboratory, is an expert in musculoskeletal imaging and orthopedics. She leads a team, including collaborators from Western (Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Western Engineering, Faculty of Health Sciences), Fanshawe College and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, which is developing a tool to improve wrist position during X-rays, increasing a health-care provider’s ability to diagnose these common injuries. The tool will first be tested in the Northwest Territories.
“In London, we are so fortunate to have access to Western and all the affiliated hospitals. We are right in the centre of innovation in medical technology, and we really benefit from it locally,” said Lalone.
“This program allows us to do a better job of letting other communities in northern Canada and around the world benefit from the research we do.”