D-Rev Applies Silicon Valley Design (and Business) Thinking to the Developing World

“I am not convinced that I would put my child in an incubator that is made of car parts.”

That’s Krista Donaldson speaking. She’s the CEO of Palo Alto, CA-based D-Rev, and the quote says a lot about the non-profit organization and its philosophy on designing healthcare equipment for the developing world.

You may have read about the incubator in question—it’s called NeoNurture, and is the creation of Cambridge, MA-based design studio Design That Matters. The device made a media splash and won design awards last year for its unique solution to the parts shortages that often render medical equipment inoperable in rural hospitals in developing countries. NeoNurture uses car headlights to keep neonatal infants warm, a dashboard fan for air circulation, and a motorcycle battery for backup power. The machine’s designers reasoned that since car parts and car-repair experts can be found almost anywhere, NeoNurture ought to be easier to maintain than a more specialized unit.

But to Donaldson’s way of thinking, the folks at Design that Matters forgot to ask a key question about their device: Could they imagine selling it to a U.S. hospital? “It’s a great example of a product that resonates with the techie community because it very cleverly solves a real need,” says Donaldson. At D-Rev, by contrast, “Our approach is that we are developing world-class products that meet quality standards here, but are designed to meet the needs of the environment there. With every project, we ask, ‘Is this something that could be used at Stanford Hospital? Is this something I would put my children in?'”

D-Rev isn’t building an infant incubator, but it is building a phototherapy device for treating severe jaundice, a condition that afflicts about an eighth of all newborns. And if there’s a simple premise behind that project and the others underway at the four-year-old organization, it’s that patients and healthcare providers in the developing world deserve access to the same high-quality technology available here—and that sometimes all it takes to make such technology affordable is a little Silicon Valley-style design and engineering thinking, matched with on-the-ground market know-how.

Indeed, if you visit D-Rev’s Emerson Street headquarters, just a couple of blocks away from world-famous design consultancy IDEO (where Donaldson once interned), it feels much like any other Palo Alto startup, with the requisite Macs, iPad, and overhead projector. The only sign that D-Rev is developing physical stuff, rather than software, is in the laboratory, where prototypes litter the floor and there’s a workbench complete with circuit boards and soldering irons. And the only sign that D-Rev is a non-profit is…well, there aren’t any.

D-Rev CEO Krista Donaldson shows a prototype for the Brilliance phototherapy device to doctors in India.

“One of the things that makes us a little out of the ordinary, and one of the things that makes us really successful, is that our methods are 95 percent business methods,” says John Dawson, chairman of the board at D-Rev (the name stands for Design Revolution). “It’s not like we are taking just a little bit of Silicon Valley and shoving it into a non-profit. Most of this organization operates like a startup.”

The main difference, Dawson told me when I visited him and Donaldson in Palo Alto in late April, is that D-Rev is aiming for social benefit, not big profits.

“Our currency is impact,” says Donaldson. “We collect minimal royalties on our products, we have licensing deals, but our measure is how successfully we treat children who wouldn’t otherwise receive treatment, and mobilize people who wouldn’t otherwise walk.” (That’s a reference to the JaipurKnee, D-Rev’s multi-axis prosthetic knee joint for amputees.) D-Rev depends on philanthropic grants to fund early product R&D that the market can’t support—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is its largest supporter. But its product development methods are straight out of the for-profit world. And it doesn’t waste time on products that don’t have a market measuring in the millions of people, or for which it can’t find eager manufacturing and marketing partners.

Donaldson is a mechanical engineer who joined D-Rev in 2009 after working as a product designer with KickStart International (then ApproTec) in Kenya, a reconstruction advisor for the … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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