A community health nurse at a clinic in southwestern Malawi talks to women about birth control. (Photo by Eileen Hohmuth-Lemonick) 

For expectant mothers and newborns in the developing world, the difference between life and death can hinge on the simplest things: battery-powered light for the village midwife, screening for anemia, or a reliable map and transportation to the nearest clinic.

There’s no shortage of breakthrough ideas—from low-tech baby warmers to bicycle ambulances—for improving the health of newborns and mothers in under-resourced areas. The challenge is getting good tools and information to the front lines in regions where pregnancy remains a leading cause of death among women of childbearing age. That’s where Maternova comes in. This social enterprise based in Providence, R.I., has a vision to accelerate innovation in the field of maternal and neonatal health by harnessing everything from the Web to suitcases.

Founder Meg Wirth has spent 15 years focusing on maternal and neonatal issues from a policy perspective. She also has had on-the-ground experience that opened her eyes to day-today challenges. In policy and practice, she has noticed two recurring questions. “First, where are the health facilities? It’s amazing how many governments can’t answer that question very well,” Wirth says. “Second, what are the lifesaving tools and how do we get them?”

Maternova is helping to answer these critical questions with its new online innovation platform. The website serves as idea marketplace and information channel for disseminating best practices, identifying gaps, and encouraging more innovation. “We’re not passively tracking information,” Wirth adds. “We play the role of arbiter.”

No region has a corner on good ideas. Some solutions are coming from Western universities through graduate schools of engineering, public health, medicine, and business. “We’re also seeing novel ideas coming from the developing world where providers have had to improvise or come up with work-arounds,” Wirth says. A doctor in Bangladesh, for example, has developed an absorbent mat that shows at a glance how much blood a patient is losing during childbirth. Engineers in India have designed a portable device to screen for anemia without needing to prick a finger.

Maternova currently showcases nearly 100 solutions, “and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” promises Wirth. To expand its impact, the organization focuses on three strategies. First, it tracks innovation on the Web so that good ideas gain traction, and possibly financial backing, more quickly. “The Internet and technology can amplify voice and speed the transfer of ideas from low-resource areas,” Wirth says.

Second, Maternova packs complementary products into kits that can be distributed on the ground—either in bulk by partner organizations or in small numbers by travelers packing them into their suitcases. Obstetrics kits, for example, include 10 inexpensive tools. Midwives who are on the receiving end are providing real-time feedback to improve products and fine-tune the kits.

Third, Maternova maps the location of obstetrics services using Web-based tools that can be updated in real time. One of the first is a widget that allows for instant updating of information about 42 clinics in a region of Mexico, including their location, hours, medical supplies, and specialized services. “This is lightweight technology, very easy to use,” Wirth says.

Although Maternova has received start-up support from the SEVEN Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, and others, the organization intends to sustain itself as a for-profit social enterprise. Revenue sources include a small margin on bulk product sales and fees for licensing the custom mapping software.

Already, Maternova has earned praise from the Buckminster Fuller Challenge. In naming Maternova one of 21 semifinalists for 2011 (from a pool of 162 entries), the judging panel said: “Maternova is a highly innovative, unique project in its field, visionary but powerfully practical. All its initiatives are designed to be flexible: to be able to absorb rapid feedback from the field to constantly redesign and improve what they offer, and to be as elegantly designed, simple-to-use and effective as possible.”

Elegance notwithstanding, Maternova does not sugarcoat its message. The landing page shares this stark statistic: “One woman dies every minute in the context of trying to give life.”

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