Lighten up

How Start-Up Matibabu is Modernizing the Fight against Malaria.

Sometimes great new ideas, ideas with the potential to make the world a better place, need an extra push.

As a computer science student at Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda, Brian Gitta found himself being injected three times a day to treat a foodborne illness when he started to feel the telltale signs of malaria coming on. He’d had the disease as a child and Kampala, the nation’s capital, lies on the shore of Lake Victoria, known to be one of the world’s deadliest malaria zones.

Brian dreaded the thought of yet more needles — malaria is currently diagnosed using blood samples — and started to wonder if there might not be a better, less painful way of diagnosis.

  Close-up of a machine against a yellow background   Close-up of a machine against a yellow background

Matibabu, Malaria Diagnosis in an App

After he recovered and returned to university, Brian’s curiosity about diagnosing malaria continued to grow. If diagnosed early, malaria is treatable with antimalarial drugs. But diagnosis requires resources only available at a medical center, a luxury many African communities cannot afford. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people die from the disease every year.

Brian’s curiosity led him to discover that light sensors had been used to read the oxygen levels in blood and he wondered if there might be a way to somehow use light to detect malaria. Brian convinced a few fellow students who had learned to engineer hardware to develop a finger clamp prototype that uses infrared light and sensors and plugs into any smartphone. Brian’s team dubbed the device “Matibabu,” which means “medical center” in Swahili and formed their start-up, thinkIT.

A Culture of Curiosity, and Room to Step Back and Wonder

The Accelerator program, through offices in Darmstadt and in Nairobi, Kenya, provides promising start-ups like Matibabu access to a creative community of others who share their curiosity and drive. At the Innovation Center, start-up teams have access to workshops, a full curriculum, funding, and a network of mentors and thought leaders to help shape their ideas into game-changing products.

Michael Gamber, who heads the Innovation Center in Darmstadt, emphasizes the importance of nurturing and supporting creative curiosity through the Accelerator program: “The Innovation Center setup provides our start-up teams with the time and space to flex their curiosity and challenge themselves to take their innovations further.” Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany experiences its own benefits from the exchange by offering employees the opportunity to learn from the start-ups. Michael cites agility and openness as some of the key takeaways from working with start-ups in the Accelerator program.

Lead developer Josiah Kavuma said that the Accelerator program’s network of mentors “has been key to developing our product. It’s a great opportunity to meet people, especially those with expertise in malaria and treatments, that want to sit down and discuss ways to make your business a success.”

Josiah’s passion and sense of urgency runs deep. “If you test for malaria early, you will survive because there is medicine you can take. It is a complex situation if malaria is realized at a mature stage. In most countries where malaria flourishes, someone would have to travel long distances just to visit a health clinic, pay for a test, wait in long queues, and then visit a pharmacist. People are dying from a treatable disease because they don’t have access to affordable, efficient, and timely diagnosis equipment.”

Josiah envisions Matibabu as a first step toward a “malaria-free generation,” and says that the Accelerator program encouraged his team to think even bigger.

“The Accelerator program has helped us take a step back and be really curious about how this business can grow and be sustainable. When we talk to people in other fields we think about how we can apply this technology to test for other diseases in addition to malaria. It widens our options as we think about the future of the company.”

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