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Meet Nexleaf: the nonprofit using IoT to protect vaccines for one in ten babies worldwide

03 Feb 2020
june sugiyama

June Sugiyama

Director, Vodafone Americas Foundation

I caught up with Nithya Ramanathan, Co-Founder and CEO of Nexleaf Analytics, to find out how IoT and connected technology is helping to solve global health challenges.

Nexleaf’s vaccine monitoring wireless sensor, ColdTrace, won the Vodafone America Foundation's Wireless Innovation Project in 2013 and we’ve felt a part of the team ever since. The solution helps to ensure that life-saving vaccines arrive to their final destination as quickly and safely as possible.

ColdTrace does this by remotely monitoring vaccine fridges in order to provide near real-time information on storage temperature and other critical issues. This allows medical professionals to address these problems before the vaccines spoil and become ineffective.

Now, the company works with network operators, like Vodafone Business, to use this model of critical sensors and data collection to help solve other health challenges.

I've known Nexleaf Analytics co-founder and CEO Nithya Ramanathan for many years, even before the technology she used was named IoT. We recently had the chance to sit down and catch up at Mobile World Congress where she was a panelist on the topic.

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June: Why is IoT so important for Nexleaf Analytics’ business?

Nithya: IoT starts in different places for different companies, but for us, it started at the very beginning.

Nexleaf is a tech non-profit. My co-founder, Martin Lukac, and I started Nexleaf with the purpose of exploring the possibilities of IoT in global health. We build sensors and data analytics platforms, ultimately interested in how you capture the insights on the complexity that goes into delivering vaccines to children.

Our customer base is made up of the governments in the poorest countries who manage complex infrastructure, like the vaccine cold chain. We’re fortunate to have developed close partnerships with Ministries of Health from the beginning. Having those connections gave us insight into their challenges, both as users and customers of the technology, and we could build technology based on their feedback to meet their needs.

It’s incredible because our technology and solutions now protect the vaccine supply for one in ten babies born on earth. Without IoT, none of this would be possible.

June: Where did the motivation to use IoT to solve such a large-scale global issue come from?

Nithya: Early on in my career I saw the power of networks and sensors and wireless communications. I used network sensors to understand arsenic poison in ground water in Bangladesh. At the time, the data was mainly for research purposes, to investigate the issue without necessarily coming to a solution. I then saw the potential of data collection and use to address challenges in global health more systematically.

It was seeing the possibilities that sensors and technology could bring to global health challenges that sparked the idea of Nexleaf for Martin and me.

June: Looking back, how has Vodafone Americas Foundation helped your company deliver a more connected and effective service?

Nithya: The challenge for us was funding to scale our IoT platform and really make an impact, which is where Vodafone Americas Foundation came in. You and the Foundation have an incredibly skilled way of finding innovation early on and at a point that can scale with a modest amount of money.

We went through an intensive vetting process, pitched to the Foundation, and ended up winning $300,000. This immediately opened up doors for us to scale and reach a few countries in the first few years. We’re now in over 30 countries.

When we won the Vodafone Americas Prize, we had figured out how to take low-cost flip phones and connect a $2 thermistor to the phone, to allow us to tap into this massive infrastructure, communications, and hardware platform. We could then take this really cheap sensor and connect it to the phone and get an immediate, automatic IoT platform. It worked like a charm! The phones were easily programmable and could be powered by USB ports. Not only that but they could sit in the box for a couple years.

That’s why the data from this system has been crucial. The sensor sits in remote clinics across the world and monitors the temperature of fridges to find out when vaccines may be at risk if the fridge stops working or it's running too cold. Freezing just as much as heat, is a massive risk for vaccines and can damage them. When there is a temperature problem or failure, a nurse gets the alert right away and takes action. It’s amazing what we’re able to do in real time, and how we’re able to scale it at a low cost.

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June: You’ve been growing with new partners and more territories, what’s next for Nexleaf Analytics?

Nithya: Earlier this year we won a competitive grant from Google.org to apply machine learning to existing datasets. With Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – an international organization committed to increasing access to immunization in poor countries – and Ministries of Health, we realized we had been collecting data on the temperature of vaccine fridges for years now, and we wanted to give that data more meaning, we want to know the impact of temperature conditions on vaccines.

We expect that by applying artificial intelligence to cold chain data, Ministries of Health around the world can fully evaluate and improve their cold chains. This work is still in its early stages but it has tremendous potential.

What other issues could be addressed with this technology? Find out how technology can put food on the table

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