The Bright Blue Light That Is Helping to Save Babies’ Lives

Building devices that have a tangible impact on people’s lives is important. Building teams from among the most knowledgeable experts in the world is exciting. Design that Matters accomplished both to create Firefly, a device used to treat babies born with jaundice in developing countries.
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Building devices that have a tangible impact on people’s lives is important. Building teams from among the most knowledgeable experts in the world is exciting. Design that Matters accomplished both to create Firefly, a device used to treat babies born with jaundice in developing countries.

After learning some hard lessons through the failed launch of the NeoNurture incubator, the team at the nonprofit organization Design that Matters worked closely with the East Meets West Foundation, an affiliate of Thrive Networks, and manufacturer MTTS for a project tackling jaundice. 

Jaundice is a condition that affects 60 percent of all newborns, and 10 percent of newborns require treatment. In the U.S. and other developed countries, the treatment is simple and effective. The treatment for jaundice, which is known as phototherapy, requires hospital staff to shine a bright blue light on the exposed skin of the baby. Left untreated, jaundice can cause brain damage or death.

Although jaundice is no cause for alarm in developed countries, in some parts of the world it is a leading cause of infant mortality. The East Meets West Foundation asked Design that Matters to work on a product that could be used to provide phototherapy to infants in developing countries.

One of the problems that hospitals in developing countries face in treating infants born with jaundice is a lack of equipment. Sometimes two or three babies will be placed under one light, and only one of them will be receiving effective phototherapy. 

Another issue is that the babies look vulnerable and cold, and mothers or other caregivers will cover them with a blanket, which means that the baby is not receiving any treatment. Finally, equipment designed for use in the developing world must be tough. Roads may be inadequate or nonexistent; there are few replacement parts or technicians available to make repairs.

The product that the team created ended up being Firefly, which Design that Matters says is “a cost-effective, intuitive phototherapy device designed to treat newborns with mild to severe jaundice in low-resource settings.”  

In addition, the product is designed for rural health care settings, so it’s compact, user-friendly and can fit inside the mother’s bed. And if the mother decides to cover the baby with a blanket, there’s a blue light on the bottom of the device, so the baby will still be receiving treatment.

But as the Design that Matters team can attest, you can’t get from the design phase to the clinic without a number of challenges.


Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

Bringing Together a Stellar Team

Elizabeth Johansen, the director of product development at Design that Matters, had experience leading design teams through her previous work at the design firm IDEO. However, she says that there are some major differences between the for-profit world and working at a nonprofit — beyond the most obvious.

“IDEO depended on inside staff to get things done. It was really about looking internally and putting together a great team," Johansen told Not Impossible Now. “At Design that Matters I can reach out to people anywhere in the world. No matter what I need I can tap into people from students to experts on global health or medical professionals that have been working in different places.” 

In many cases, volunteers don’t have time to dedicate six to 12 months to a project, so Design that Matters takes advantage of what they call “low-bono” or reduced-rate contractors. For the Firefly project, Johansen put together a team of five different contracting firms, as well as groups of student volunteers. One of the contracting firms that worked on the project was Boston Design Solutions, owned by Mike Damiano.

In an interview with Not Impossible Now, Damiano said that when Johansen first approached Boston Design Solutions, they quoted a “normal” price for the project. When Design that Matters explained their budget limitations, Boston Design Solutions agreed to work within those constraints.

Damiano said that several factors played into the decision to work on the project. “We had a lot of experience with the technology that they needed. It was in our area of expertise, and it was a good time for us, and they were local,” he said.

Choosing to work on projects with nonprofit organizations for lower rates can be tricky for small businesses.

“You have to really pick out where you can donate and help out and where you can’t,” Damiano said “You’ve got to really pick your spots so that you don’t hurt your company financially.”

One of the attractive things about Firefly was that Design that Matters brought together expert teams for each piece of the project. 


Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

Like a Flash Mob

Coordinating teams from all over the world and creating a viable, useful product brings along all manner of challenges. Johansen explained that another big difference between working in the for-profit world versus working for Design that Matters is the ability to “lead from inspiration.”

“Whenever we hit a bump in the road we could refer back to the goal — to save newborn lives. At IDEO we had a great group of people, and we did great work, but having that additional mission is important,” Johansen said. “Now, I get to lead teams of the best experts in the world is amazing and to be able to lead by inspiration is a great feeling.”

Damiano agreed that having such a noble final goal is motivating, and adds that the Firefly project continues to feel good. “Now, two years later, we still see information about it, and it just keeps going and it continues to feel good,” he said.

While having a worthy mission that inspired participants was critical to the Firefly project, dealing effectively with obstacles and challenges was equally vital to the final success of the product. 

“There were teams responsible for every different part of the whole thing,” Damiano said. “It was up to Elizabeth to put it all together and take care of any issues. When everything came together it was amazing that it actually worked. We met maybe every couple of weeks, but we worked remotely.”

Damiano explained it was “like a flash mob” because the whole thing was perfectly coordinated and the final result worked exactly like it was supposed to. The model of expert teams working remotely may be the future of nonprofit projects, Damiano said.


Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

The Final Result

Firefly is, by all accounts, a successful device. It can be used to treat the baby in the mother’s recovery room in rural clinics, which helps reduce the workload for hospital staff.

Damiano said that one of the staff members at Boston Design Solutions broke down into tears when she saw the results of the project. 

“Within the first year, Firefly had already been used to save over 100 babies,” he said. “It feels good to be part of something like that.”

True to form, Design that Matters continues to update all of the teams that worked on the project, sharing new milestones and news about the Firefly, which is another thing that Damiano appreciates.

“As of December 2014, DtM partners East Meets West Foundation (an affiliate of Thrive Networks) and Vietnamese manufacturing partner MTTS have installed Firefly in ten developing countries across Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, East Timor, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia), Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana and Burundi), and the Caribbean (Haiti),” according to the Design that Matters website. “These devices have already treated over 6,000 newborns and will treat at least 38,000 over their lifetime. DtM and our partners expect to distribute at least 1,000 Firefly devices, reaching over 500,000 newborns.”    

Read More Stories in Our Design that Matters Series

Top photo courtesy of Design that Matters