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An Eye for Innovation

From Idea to Reality

There are two reasons I want to tell you about the pair of bright young people I met earlier this month. First, because they’re working on a project that could be a real life-saver in the developing world. And second, because the way they’re going about it is a great example for anyone who’s trying to turn an idea into reality.

Jarrel Seah and Jennifer Tang are medical students at Monash University in Australia who share a passion for technology. The 22-year-olds teamed up late last year to create an app called Eyenaemia, which lets people use their cell phone to screen for anemia. As the winners of this year’s Imagine Cup, a competition run by Microsoft, they visited the Seattle area and stopped by my office to talk about their work.

Anemia affects some 2 billion people around the world, and more than 290 million children. It’s an awful condition—you’re exhausted, your heart beats erratically, you get dizzy—and while it’s often caused by a lack of iron in your diet, it can also be a symptom of serious illnesses like malaria and bowel cancer. Jarrel told me, “In Australia’s aboriginal indigenous communities, over half of young children are anemic. And a large percentage of that is actually due to helminth infections—hookworms.”

Diagnosing anemia isn’t always easy. One method requires drawing blood and running lab tests, which simply isn’t possible in a lot of poor areas. And the cheapest test is very imprecise: A doctor pulls down your eyelid and checks the underside to see if it looks pale.

Eyenaemia is designed to take out both the expense and the guesswork. It lets you take a photo of the underside of your eyelid and then, judging by the color, tries to tell whether you’re anemic. “What's different about this is it’s noninvasive,” Jennifer said. “You don't need all that sterile equipment, and an untrained user can use it.” (Their idea is part of a promising trend: Researchers are studying whether cell phones can reduce the need for lab tests by detecting pneumonia, HIV, TB, and other conditions.)

It’s exciting to see bright young people like Jennifer and Jarrel applying their talents to problems that disproportionately affect the poor. As I told them, I could see a future version of Eyenaemia being used in developing countries, especially with pregnant women, since anemia contributes to nearly 20 percent of deaths during pregnancy.

So the tool has real promise. But Jennifer and Jarrel aren’t under any illusions. They know that having a great idea—“screen for anemia with a cell phone”—was only the beginning. In the early stages, they had a lot to learn: They went online to read up on design and cloud computing, which they didn’t know much about. Now the challenge is different. They have to keep improving their work.

We spent a lot of time talking about how they want to do that. For example, “We still have a high false positive rate,” Jarrel said. They’re looking at ways to bring it down by adding in factors like the patient’s age and gender, which they suspect affect the results by changing the color of the eyelid.

The idea that you have to keep refining your work might seem like old hat to a scientist who has spent decades perfecting a vaccine. Or to a software developer: When I was at Microsoft, we were maniacal about constantly learning from our customers and improving our products. But Jennifer and Jarrel’s efforts serve as a good reminder, especially for young people who are just getting started. Although  innovation begins with a great idea, it certainly doesn’t end there.

You can follow the Eyenaemia team on Twitter and Facebook.

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