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Gradian Highlighted in the Wall Street Journal!

"The Challenge of Health-Care Innovation in Developing Nations"

Sep 29, 2016

The Wall Street Journal’s Melinda Beck recently covered the topic of healthcare innovation in developing countries, citing Gradian as one of the ventures working to solve this pressing global health challenge. Read the full article here [paywall] and check out our excerpt below!

The Challenge of Health-Care Innovation in Developing Nations

Creating a low-cost innovation to solve a global health problem isn’t easy. Getting it scaled up, financed, distributed, culturally accepted and actually used is harder still.

The PlayPump, a merry-go-round powered by children that pumped water from the ground, was a classic case. Despite substantial funding and global acclaim, many of the 1,000 PlayPumps installed in Africa sat idle because groundwater wasn’t accessible, they were difficult to maintain and villages didn’t want to require children to play.

Many hospitals in poor countries are awash in equipment they can’t use, donated in exchange for tax credits. Sometimes it requires stable electricity that they don’t have or breaks and can’t be repaired. Sometimes the equipment was never needed in the first place.


Another successful venture, the Universal Anesthesia Machine, was designed by a British anesthesiologist working in Malawi who was fed up with frequent power outages and shortages of compressed oxygen making anesthesia machines unworkable. The doctor, Paul Fenton, built his own version, using parts from discarded equipment, that can switch to battery power and run on room air if necessary.

When no commercial manufacturers were interested in investing in the equipment and distributing it to other hospitals, Dr. Fenton obtained support from the Nick Simons Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy, which in turn founded Gradian Health Systems, a nonprofit, to market it. Since 2010, Gradian has sold nearly 200 of the machines, at cost, in 24 countries, and trained hospital staffers to maintain them.

At $15,000 to $20,000 each, “our machine isn’t necessarily the lowest-cost, but it’s the only one that will keep working if your infrastructure craps out on you,” says Erica Frenkel, Gradian’s chief operating officer.

“Cool innovative ideas are a dime a dozen,” Ms. Frenkel says. “The task becomes engineering the right company around the product.” She says relying on local nonprofit partners and carefully selecting distributors and training them to provide repairs is critical.

“Everyone from the customs officer to the taxi driver to the concierge at the hotel wants to be your distributor,” she says. Finding people with the right skills and contacts “is a full-time job for us.”