The College Kids Who Reinvented the Ultrasound
Expectant mothers line the maternity ward corridor, wearily waiting for medical
attention. In rooms off to the side, undersized cots hold several women but those
without beds must wait at the doors. The midwives and nurses at Uganda’s largest
hospital dart from patient to patient, doing what they can to help.
“Imagine Cup affirmed to me that I am part of a new breed of African youth: the
kind that have the skills, ability and passion to make things that will change the
course of Africa and the world.”
Mulago Hospital in the Ugandan capital of Kampala during a break before university,
Aaron Tushabe is struck by the crowds and the suffering. He thinks not only about
those who are waiting in the long lines but the 80 percent of Ugandans who live
in rural areas and can’t make the trek to the capitol for medical care. Aaron leaves
the hospital determined to find a way to help.
Months later, attending a hackathon with fellow university freshman Josh Okello,
the two meet Joseph Kaizzi, an IT expert and Imagine Cup participant who encourages
them to create a team for the upcoming competition.
Imagine Cup is a global student technology program and competition that
provides opportunities for students to team up and use their creativity, passion
and knowledge of technology to create applications, games and integrated solutions
that can change the way we live, work, and play. In 2012, the competition asked
technologists to address the United Nation’s
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
One of those goals is to improve maternal health and infant mortality. Aaron and
Josh, who spent some time in medical school before pursuing IT degrees, both thought
of the Mulago Hospital. Their collective experience with maternal health and maternity
wards led them to seek a solution for women in their community.
WinSenga is a handheld device that can scan a pregnant woman’s womb and report information
to a mobile application that recommends a course of action.
solve a problem that would have a cascading effect on all the other MDGs,” says
Josh. “Statistics show that communities with healthy mothers are more successful.
We felt that the goals around education, economic growth and development would be
easier to tackle after maternal health.”
They created Team Cipher256, named after the country code for Uganda. In their team
strategy sessions, Aaron recalled his failed attempt at using the Pinard horn, a
device similar to a stethoscope named after the French doctor who invented it. Widely
used in Africa as an alternative to the ultrasound, the device picks up vital signs
when placed on a pregnant woman’s abdomen. But it takes practice to read it correctly
and only skilled nurses can interpret the sounds. Aaron and Josh became determined
to find a way for computer science to change that.
They set out to create a portable, mobile and affordable tool to help mothers with
prenatal care. The result was WinSenga (Win for Windows and Senga is the Luganda
word for auntie, the woman charged with guiding mothers in reproductive health).
WinSenga is a handheld device
that can scan a pregnant woman’s womb and report fetal weight, position, breathing
patterns, age, and heart rate. It uses a plastic trumpet-shaped device, similar
to the Pinard horn, and a microphone. The information is transmitted to a smart
phone and into the mobile application that plays the part of the nurse’s ear and
recommends a course of action. The analysis and recommendations are uploaded to
the cloud and can be accessed by a doctor anywhere to track progress at any time.
WinSenga will give high-risk mothers in rural areas access to prenatal care. Uganda
has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and according to UNICEF,
less than 40 percent of mothers make the recommended four prenatal visits due to
long distances to hospitals, lack of effective equipment, and understaffing. “Most
clinics in rural areas don’t have ultrasound machines and women can’t afford to
travel,” Aaron says. A prenatal visit costs about 20,000 Uganda shillings (US$10)
in the Mulago Hospital.
Women wait in line at a trial for WinSenga, the device created by Ugandan university
students to help expectant mothers read and interpret fetal vital signs.
minute an expectant mother dies from complications related to pregnancy or child
birth: 70 percent of those deaths occur in developing countries, disproportionately
in Sub-Saharan Africa. WinSenga allows those without access to healthcare facilities
a locally-designed solution.
“We believe that for a technology to work and serve the user, two fundamental issues
must be addressed: affordability and access,” says Josh. “The former puts the tech
in the hands of the user and the latter helps them get it more easily.”
Team Cipher256 entered and won the Microsoft East and Southern African Imagine Cup
National Finals and then competed in the World Finals in Sydney. They were beat
In Australia, but undeterred. They applied for an Imagine Cup Grant and found out
they won a $50,000 grant at the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley. Imagine
Cup and the Imagine Cup Grants are both part of Microsoft YouthSpark, our initiative
focused on creating opportunities for youth to realize their full potential through
programs that strengthen education, expand digital inclusion, and give young people
the tools they need to change their world.
Team Cipher256 wins a $50,000 Imagine Cup Grant for their device created to bring
prenatal care to rural women in the developing world.
project and the grant money resulted in the creation of the company
which now employs seven people. The team continues to work on
development and is preparing for a nationwide clinical trial.
The young entrepreneurs are using some of the perks of their Imagine Cup Grant to
support their business efforts. Microsoft
BizSpark provides them with free software, support and visibility for their
startup. Both Josh and Aaron are also Microsoft Student Champs: members of an online
community that connects them with other young entrepreneurs and industry professionals.
Their company is housed in the Microsoft Innovation
Centre in Uganda, a hub that provides employment, education and entrepreneurship
opportunities for Ugandan youth. Aaron recently received his bachelor’s degree in
computer science; Josh delayed his graduation to work on the startup but will receive
it in January of 2015.
unemployment is above 60 percent. Josh and Aaron’s parents are teachers and the
young men were fortunate to be able to attend boarding schools and university, but
they are grateful for the entrepreneurial opportunity the Imagine Cup experience
provided. They are already paying it forward by working as volunteers.
“Imagine Cup helped me grow professionally, opened my eyes, and gave me a platform
to inspire many other young people,” Josh says. “It affirmed to me that I am part
of a new breed of African youth: the kind that have the skills, ability and passion
to make things that will change the course of Africa and the world.”