In many countries, women of reproductive age are at greater risk of dying during childbirth than from any other cause. Simple life-saving tools exist but are out of reach for many health workers. It was in this context that Maternova was launched. Maternova is an online global fast track commercialization accelerator and marketplace for ideas and technologies for global health. The platform aggregates innovative tools and protocols for use by frontline health workers, policymakers, and organizations focused on saving lives in childbirth. CHMI’s Christina Synowiec interviewed founders Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote to learn more about this initiative and the products that they think have the biggest impact in saving the lives of mothers and children.
Christina: Maternova is taking a groundbreaking approach to identifying and distributing new global health product innovations. What were some of the “lightbulb moments” you’ve experienced in running the platform?
Meg: There was no single lightbulb moment, rather it was and is a process of tackling a series of practical hurdles, knowing that frontline workers were usually equipped by a decision-maker or purchasing agent, we needed to make sure that that group of people was constantly supplied with reliable, updated information about available innovations. That led us to the process of researching what are the gaps in distribution and accessing the products. The more we dug into it, the more we saw that simple products were stuck at similar stages in the pipeline. With that, the company started to market a carefully screened and curated obstetric kit. Now we go beyond just the time of birth for a more holistic approach to include other products like infant warming, anemia detection, antenatal tests, ultrasound, and micronutrients.
Christina: What’s the process of identifying the products and technologies that are featured on Maternova?
Meg: The first question is whether the product is appropriate for the rugged conditions in which frontline health workers operate. Then we have a group of scientific advisors – midwives, ob-gyns, nurses and others – who help to evaluate the products in the field. The last step is to compile the product review data the product to make sure it works and is easy to maintain over time.
Allyson: Then we start to market and sell the product, and as a part of that process we have a continuous feedback loop in place. If the product doesn’t live up to expectations, we can remove it from our marketplace. On the Maternova site, we’ve built in a collaboration platform with a mapping software tool that our clients can use to host user trials of specific products. Many of the products in our marketplace have had a rigorous behind-the-scenes multi-country testing process through this.
Christina: What are some of the private sector innovations that you’re seeing scale the fastest?
Allyson: One product that seems to have a lot of traction is the anti-shock garment. Chlorhexidine, an inexpensive solution that can stave off umbilical infection, also seems to have a lot of traction, and is scaling quickly. The one other product that’s extremely important for newborn health is micronutrient fortification for pregnant mothers.
Meg: We’ve also had a lot of requests for some of the more advanced medical devices – especially diagnostics and handheld ultrasounds. Hospitals often can’t afford larger ultrasound technologies, or they struggle with the ongoing maintenance costs. So we’ve been quite bullish in championing one of the easiest diagnostic ultrasounds on the market – Signos-RT - priced thousands of dollars lower than any unit. The tool is really portable and affordable - I really think it’s going to be a game changer. It will introduce ultrasound as a diagnostic tool in facilities and clinics where it would never have been an option previously.
Christina: What are some of the market challenges you’ve witnessed in scaling up the distribution of these products?
Meg: It can be challenging to identify who are the trusted distributors in a given country who can get the products out. Hand in hand with that is the regulatory process. Each setting has a different set of regulations for licensing approval. The risk is sitting in customs for months on end, so we’re always looking to make additional connections with people who can help us identify reputable distributors. We use our advisors, their networks, and the customers to triangulate what are the best possible options for navigating the regulatory space.
Allyson: We see a disconnect between those working on the product side and those on the delivery side. That’s what makes a product like Aidpod so interesting– they deliver ORS salts through Coca Cola bottle crates, designing the product to fit into an existing distribution system.
Christina: Who are the buyers of the products that Maternova features?
Allyson: The clients really run the gamut - everyone from governments right down to independent practitioners and clinicians. There really isn’t a standard client type. Even though we’re moving towards much larger orders, we never want to alienate the people who originally believed in Maternova and came to use us as their trusted resource.
Meg: We rely on our fast-moving, early adopters. We’re working with larger scale groups as well, but we find that it’s often your very knowledgeable midwife or clinician who directly advises the Ministry of Health and is really instrumental in getting innovations in front of policymakers to take to scale. We also get direct requests from Ministries of Health who find us online.
Christina: What other barriers are there after an innovation has been proven?
Meg: If you look at micronutrients, many people don’t even know that which new products exist. Another barrier is actually getting the product. We’re constantly contacted by mobile clinics, small groups that are desperate to get micronutrients, but a manufacturing run must be as many as a million sachets in some cases. That’s something that smaller groups just can’t cover. We’re now starting the process of aggregating orders for a group purchasing model. I don’t think people realize how big the gap is. When people talk about distribution, it’s not just how do you take the product in the country to the last mile. There shouldn’t be this much red tape to get a product into the field, and this just fuels our fire to solve the problem of access to lifesaving products.