Breath of Life

Millennium Alliance awardee Coeo Labs offers solutions to prevent deaths due to infant respiratory distress syndrome and ventilator-associated pneumonia in low-resource settings in India

By Jason Chiang

April 2020

Breath of Life

Coeo Labs’ Saans device helps maintain airflow in infants with respiratory distress syndrome. Photograph courtesy Coeo Labs

As part of a clinical-needs assessment program run by the Affordable Inventions in MedTech research fellowship of Bengaluru-based medtech company InnAccel, two entrepreneurs set out to help identify crucial problems in the health care industry and build new indigenous solutions. For over two-and-a-half months, Nitesh K. Jangir and Nachiket Deval shadowed doctors, patients and other staff inside a Bengaluru hospital to better understand what problems they face every day. In October 2014, the entrepreneurs formed Coeo Labs in Bengaluru to build innovative medtech solutions for low-resource areas.

One of the major problems Jangir and Deval noticed was the high number of deaths due to infant respiratory distress syndrome—about 250,000 cases are reported in India every year, and 32 percent affected babies die while being transported to medical facilities. A majority of these deaths can be prevented by the application of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). Unfortunately, a significant number of newborns and infants do not get access to this technology during transport nor are electricity and skilled manpower widely available at many care centers. Thus, Coeo Labs developed Saans, an unpowered, purely mechanical, low-skill neonatal CPAP device, which helps maintain airflow in babies with respiratory distress syndrome while being transported. Coeo Labs also focused on ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP), a major nosocomial cause of mortality in intensive care units, and created the VAPCare critical care device.

For its work, Coeo Labs won a grant from the Millennium Alliance, a consortium of partners including the Government of India, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and others. Millennium Alliance provides funding, capacity building and business development support to Indian social enterprises.

Excerpts from an interview with Jangir.

How did you first become interested in health care?

I was born in a village in Rajasthan. The nearest specialty hospital was over 150 kilometers away from my house. I have seen people lose their lives as a result of not getting timely access to health care. This led me to think about becoming a doctor and serving people. But I also had a keen interest in physics and biology.

Could you tell us briefly about Coeo Labs?

Coeo Labs is a medical device company, solving unmet clinical needs in the fields of emergency and critical care. We have a vision of preventing preventable deaths in emergency and critical care.

Coeo Labs’ focus is to understand local needs and problems and solve them with appropriate solutions. In a country like India, more than 75 percent of medical devices are imported. Even after paying a premium price, many times, these are not the most suitable products for low-resource settings. We wanted to change this scenario and set an example of how innovating for low-resource settings can make both financial and social impact.

Preventing VAP and providing breathing support at the first point-of-care for babies with respiratory problems were the top two critical problems that we wanted to try solving. Currently, we offer two solutions. The first is called Saans, a low-cost neonatal breathing support system to cater to five million newborns in low-resource settings. Our other solution is a critical care device called VAPCare, which prevents the risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia in patients on long-term ventilator care.

Please tell us about Coeo Labs’ work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have upgraded our neonatal CPAP machine, Saans, by changing the amount of air delivered through the machine to help coronavirus-affected patients. This is already available in the market.

Our other product, VAPCare, has been installed in some hospitals, coronavirus treatment centres and isolation wards in Andhra Pradesh. VAPcare is an intelligent secretions and oral hygiene management system. It goes inside the patient’s airway, especially those who are on ventilators, and automatically senses and removes all the infected saliva and secretions without human intervention, to make sure that the patient does not get any secondary infection. It also helps prevent caregivers from coming into contact with the infected saliva of the patients. Additionally, the automatic suctioning procedure saves caregivers’ time as they don’t have to do it manually.

What are some of the unique challenges of working in the health care industry?

The issue with a new concept or invention is that the market is slow to adopt a product that has never been seen before, especially if it comes from a new Indian company. We have to build a strong brand name, strong clinical data, strong collaborations and work with top physicians to prove our solutions are world-class.

How did winning the Millennium Alliance grant in 2016 help you in your work?

We won a Millennium Alliance grant at a very crucial stage, when we had a proof of concept and were looking for funding to develop a product. The capacity-building workshops by the Alliance partners were especially useful for better understanding project management.

The funding amount, and the validation that came along with the grant, helped us in developing the product and in customer acquisition. It has helped us conduct testing of the product in the field and helped health care workers save lives.

What are the current status and future plans of Coeo Labs for its Saans device?

Our product is purchased by many health care providers in India and Africa. Two clinical trials have been done with the Saans device. The product has saved more than 1,000 babies and counting.

There are 60,000 birth centers in India where Saans could be used and we are not present in even 10 percent of these centers. Our goal in the next five years is to reach 5,000 of these birthing centers and help health care workers save 100,000 more lives. We are looking for both public and private partnerships to reach this goal, and achieve financial sustainability.

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.


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