How a Nigerian Startup is Saving Babies’ Lives

Many mothers describe the act of giving birth as one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences of their lives. In fact, they’re likely to tell you that the pain, planning, anxiety, and symptoms were always worth it. Whether birth stories are expressed in terms of apprehension or joy, it can be agreed that relief is the most commonly felt emotion for most new parents. Unfortunately, for the families of millions of infants worldwide, relief is an emotion that is impossible to equate with their birth experience.

That is because birth asphyxia is one of the top three causes of infant mortality and affects approximately 1.2 million infants globally. In addition to the 1.2 million deaths caused by birth asphyxia, millions of children suffer from life-long medical conditions due to oxygen loss, like cerebral palsy and deafness. This is where Nigerian startup Ubenwa comes in. Ubenwa has created a learning system to help detect childbirth asphyxia early and save the lives of infants.

Ubenwa, which translates to "baby’s cry," is available on Android devices and works by analyzing the amplitude and frequency patterns of infants’ cries to provide asphyxia diagnoses in real time. The app’s founder, Charles Onu, realized that although the birth asphyxia is detectable and treatable in health care facilities, very few of them had equipment available due to its expense, unreliable electrical service, and cost of maintenance and upkeep for machines. Udeogu Innocent (co-founder and engineering lead) explained that the app, which was adapted to mobile phones for ease of use and access, uses known speech recognition technology to analyze the infant cries.

Ubenwa leverages the audio processing and computational capabilities of smart mobile devices to analyse newborns’ cry and provide a qualitative assessment of whether or not the newborn has or is at risk of asphyxia.

Their app achieved over 95 percent accuracy in trials using almost 1,400 pre-recorded infant cries, and they are now raising funds to make their AI more accurate and to acquire more data to improve it before seeking clinical approval to be used in health care establishments. The app continues to undergo trials in Nigeria and at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (located in Canada). Currently, medical intervention is required to positively diagnose birth asphyxia and to treat the underlying cause, however, Ubenwa allows the condition to be caught early so medical intervention can be requested immediately.

The device can recognize asphyxia in as little as ten seconds, saving critical time when medical intervention is needed. This detection speed is also faster than traditional blood tests used to confirm asphyxia diagnoses. When compared to blood gas analyzation as a detection method, their app is also non-invasive making detection easier for the baby and for unskilled users.

Ubenwa has not finalized their business model, however, they are hoping to ensure that service is free for individuals to use meaning organizations like hospitals, clinics and governmental entities will pay for its use. Their hope is to make sustainable and affordable medical technology available to even public health care institutions, which may otherwise be unable to afford more expensive equipment. Since the app is available on smartphones it can also be a life saver for parents who otherwise would be unable to detect asphyxia in their infants themselves.

Ubenwa’s team comes from a variety of backgrounds, including but not limited to biomedical engineering, public health, tech, and business. Their collective experience in matters of public health, medical technology, entrepreneurialism and business guarantees a thorough understanding of clients’ needs as well as a robust business model which can be a sustainable solution on a larger scale. In addition to their team, Ubenwa has a group of advisors, composed of researchers and medical doctors.

So far, Ubenwa has been able to present their product at an exhibition for the United Nations AI for Good Summit in Geneva, where they were represented by one of their advisors and lead clinician, Dr. Ndiomu. They’ve also been recognized by IBM among 141 other teams from around the world in a competition for the AI XPrize. Currently, their next challenge is completing enough rounds of testing to have their product approved for use in health care establishments and approved as an alternative method of detection for the diagnosis of asphyxia.