Graduate Industrial Design alumna snags Rolex Young Laureate Award for newborn hearing screening device

by July 10th, 2014

Neeti Kailas, 2014 Rolex Young Laureate. India, 2014. ©Rolex Awards/Ambroise Tézenas

Neeti Kailas, 2014 Rolex Young Laureate. India, 2014. ©Rolex Awards/Ambroise Tézenas

Neeti Kailas (MS 13 Industrial Design) heard the news just in time to book a flight to the press conference at The Royal Society, London. Rolex had named her one of five Young Laureates for her work developing a hearing screening device for newborns in India. “I was very happy and excited [to be selected],” said Kailas. “The award will help the project advance, and the visibility is great for a start-up like mine. It is an honor to be selected as part of the community of laureates. They are all visionaries and change-makers.”

She and her husband, Nitin Sisodia, who was named one of the 2013 ‘35 Innovators Under 35’ by MIT Technology Review, identified hearing screening as a critical yet ignored aspect of healthcare across developing countries. Together they launched the Sohum innovation lab and created a functioning prototype that has been tested on adults. They are preparing for clinical trials in 2015.

“To me, design is about problem solving, and thinking about how I can have maximum impact on society. In a country like India, that’s never going to happen by designing the next lemon squeezer,” she says.

The device to detect hearing loss is tested on a baby at Vaani Vilas Hospital, Bangalore. India, 2014.  ©Rolex Awards/ Ambroise Tézenas

The device to detect hearing loss is tested on a baby at Vaani Vilas Hospital, Bangalore. India, 2014. ©Rolex Awards/ Ambroise Tézenas

“We met a boy who had come in with his mother to the doctor at the age of 5, because he had not spoken a word yet. He was diagnosed with hearing loss—but it was too late to save his speech,” said Kailas. “While developed countries have a universal hearing-screening program in place, this does not exist in resource-poor settings. So in these countries, children go undiagnosed for hearing loss until the age of 4 or 5, by which time they have already lost their speech and can’t catch up even with the best of habilitation.”

Kailas’ device works by measuring auditory brainstem response. Three electrodes are placed on the baby’s head to detect responses generated by the brain’s auditory system when engaged. If the child’s brain does not respond to these aural stimuli, it is determined they are unable to hear. The device is battery-operated and non-invasive, which means babies do not need to be sedated as some tests in the past have required. Since the equipment is inexpensive and portable, it can be used anywhere. “Another of the device’s major advantages over other testing systems is our patented, in-built algorithm that filters out ambient noise from the test signal. This was really important for us because, if you’ve ever been to health clinics in India, you’ll know how incredibly crowded and noisy they are.”

She has always been passionate about healthcare, particularly those aspects that have large-scale impact. While studying at Art Center, her work on a pregnancy risk-assessment kit, Aadhya, was exhibited in the student gallery. Kailas’ experience at Art Center, “trained [her] to be a perfectionist, but at the same time deliver results on time, even under high pressure situations,” she recalls.

Women wait with their babies, who will receive hearing tests, at Vaani Vilas Hospital, Bangalore. India, 2014. ©Rolex Awards/ Ambroise Tézenas

Women wait with their babies, who will receive hearing tests, at Vaani Vilas Hospital, Bangalore. India, 2014. ©Rolex Awards/ Ambroise Tézenas

Rebecca Irvin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex, recognized a skill for delivering the goods. “The five Young Laureates and their projects clearly demonstrate a strong spirit of enterprise and leadership,” said Irvin. “This year’s Jury was particularly impressed with the practical approach each is taking to solve real-world problems. They are certainly role models whose stories Rolex is pleased to bring to the world.”

The Young Laureates were chosen by an international jury of eight eminent experts who reviewed a shortlist from among 1,800 applicants from all over the world. Laureates will each receive 50,000 Swiss francs to advance their projects.

Kailas continues her role as an external design strategist with Nestlé Purina along with her responsibilities at Sohum.

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