Wellcome Trust is Helping Bring a Small but Powerful Tool to Last Mile Health

A key to preventing outbreaks from becoming epidemics is deploying quick diagnostics. But that's easier said than done. Hospitals and health clinics in developing countries may not have the proper diagnostic equipment on site, and spotty electricity in remote locations further exacerbates the situation. One answer to that problem: the suitcase diagnostic kit.

Researcher Ahmed Abd El Wahed began working on the suitcase diagnostic kit for Saudi Arabian officials who wanted a quick and easy way to test for a deadly respiratory disease as crowds of people made their way to Mecca on their annual Hajj pilgrimage. For whatever reason, Saudi officials lost interest in the suitcase diagnostic kit and put the brakes on funding it any further.

All was not lost for Wahed’s work, however. The Wellcome Trust, along with the UK government, saw the kit as a potentially powerful tool in detecting Ebola in West Africa. So both put in for a combined $775,000 to further develop the diagnostic suitcase for that purpose.

Researchers are increasingly working on the development of low-cost, high-tech diagnostic tools to be used out in the field. This type of technology allows for healthcare workers to make quick diagnostics to detect infectious diseases which can prevent an outbreak from becoming an epidemic. These lightweight, portable and often self-sustaining diagnostic tools are also an important mechanism to improve last mile health care.

Though funders like Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation award grants for biomedical science and innovations in medicine, funding in this area seems to be trending toward impact investments rather than traditional grant funding.

Earlier this year, for example, the Merck Global Health Innovation Fund joined a handful of other funders to make a $15.5 million investment in Daktari Diagnostics’ portable easy-to-use, point-of-care products. Daktari’s diagnostic kits are already being used out in the field, and the company recently rolled out its CD4 testers in Kenya. The diagnostic kit measures CD4 cell counts to help health care workers determine a patient's HIV stage.

Much like Wahed’s diagnostic suitcase, Daktari’s portable tester fits in a backpack and is easy to use. Incidentally, the Gates Foundation also made a program-related investment in Daktari Diagnostics.

Related: Merck Global Health Innovation Fund is Betting on Daktari Diagnostics

Impact investing is white-hot right now, and its popularity is growing at an exceedingly fast rate in the health care area. Though we don’t expect traditional grant funding to come to an end—especially in the age of Ebola and cholera outbreaks—impact investing allows companies in the diagnostic and medical device industry an alternative funding model beyond grants, traditional investments, and VCs. These investments are going to keep growing, and fast.