Newborn babies are unlikely to win prizes unless their mother is Michelle Fernandes. Her baby is, fittingly, Oxford-based start-up FoetoH, which is developing a portable wireless foetal cardiac monitor.
Dr Fernandes is a specialist in foetal medicine and currently part of the Infant Development Group at the John Radcliffe Hospital.
She explained: “We won the Tata Idea Idol award in March this year and have just been awarded best Emerging Medtech 2012 by the Oxfordshire Bioscience Network.”
The Tata Idea Idol competition, backed by Indian industrial giant Tata, is run by Oxford Entrepreneurs, the student society looking to identify tomorrow’s top businesses. FoetoH was picked from more than 250 entrants to scoop the top prize.
Dr Fernandes took her medical and surgical degrees at Oxford, followed by a D.Phil in psychiatry, before spending almost two years in India.
There she spent time as an intern, working across all the major medical departments, then worked in primary care in two villages.
In such remote locations, much of the care focuses on gynaecology and obstetrics and this led Dr Fernandes to concentrate on foetal care, both pre-natal and neonatal.
The latter is for premature babies. It was during her time in primary care that she came up with the idea of a foetal heart monitor.
She explained that pre-natal is up to 28 weeks, after which the foetus is viable, can be born prematurely, but can only survive with the right kind of treatment. Clinicians refer to such babies as being salvageable.
In the pre-natal period, the foetus is sensitive, susceptible to its environment and can deteriorate fast into miscarriage.
In the final three months, the problem is often foetal distress. This stems from a variety of causes. The mother can have a history of difficult pregnancies and miscarriages, or can develop diabetes or hypertension.
Back at Oxford, Dr Fernandes teamed up with Dr Ricardo Pachon to develop a prototype heart monitor. Colombian-born Dr Pachon is an expert on signal processing and numerical analysis.
Dr Pachon then recruited former fellow student Allan Rodriguez, who has wide experience of high-tech start-ups and emerging markets. In turn, Mr Rodriguez brought engineer Jomichael Porter, whose background is prototype development, into the team. Mr Rodriguez and Mr Porter are based in the United States.
The FoetoH monitor is designed for use in the final three months of pregnancy. If a mother feels all is not right, problems can be hard to detect and require ultrasound scans at a hospital. FoetoH is aimed at two groups, high-risk mothers and those who get anxious.
The trigger for any mother to start worrying is when the baby stops moving. By then, acidosis could be well advanced.
Mothers with no history of difficult pregnancies can begin to worry if the baby stops moving, go to hospital for tests, only to find all is well. The next time movement stops or seems to have stopped, the mother is then in a cleft stick, worrying that she might be crying wolf again.
If there are problems, they may lie undetected until it is too late. Mothers who worry often cause raised blood pressure.
The FoetoH monitor is located in a belt which the expectant mother straps around her. The monitor measures ultrasound from the foetal heart. Just before pressing the monitor’s start button at a pre-determined time, its wearer activates a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer to send data over the Internet.
Monitoring is initially for ten minutes. The interpretation software screens the signals to ensure they are from the baby’s heart and not the mother’s, aggregates and interprets them, then sends a trigger signal to the mother showing green, amber or red.
Green is all clear and the test can be repeated in two to three days. Amber shows potential problems and will remain lit, accompanied by repeat signal monitoring, until either a green or red light. Red indicates the need to seek medical advice. While monitoring, a mother can go about her normal routine.
FoetoH won £7,000 from the Tata award and the cash is going straight into product development.
Prototype I is ready but yet to be perfected. The software is complete. In early 2013, the company will be fundraising to finance Prototype II, CE marking and launch onto the market in autumn 2013.
FoetoH is looking towards emerging markets, where scattered or distant communities can really benefit from remote medicine.
Once up-and-running, further monitoring devices using the same platform are on the radar.
“We are part of the growing trend in empowering the patient and allowing them to help manage their own health,” Dr Fernandes said.