In Understaffed Hospitals, This Vital Signs Cap For Babies Could Save Lives

The Neopenda, now on Kickstarter, alerts nurses when a newborn’s vital signs need attention.

When Sona Shah visited Uganda last summer, she could see the need for the baby cap she invented with her friend Teresa Cauvel. The hospitals there had too few nurses to take care of all of the newborns.


“We noticed that nurses are extremely overworked. They’re taking care of 20 or 30 critically ill babies at the same time. We tried to come up with a way to keep an eye on all the babies more efficiently,” Shah says.

The Neopenda hat, now on Kickstarter, tracks heart and respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation and temperature, sending data wirelessly to a tablet. If any of the readings drop below safe levels, the tablet sounds an alert and a light on the cap turns on. That way, a nurse can intervene more quickly and take care of more infants.

The Neopenda is one of eight finalists of the Wireless Innovation Project, an annual competition organized by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. Others include a drone lifeguard, an anti-poaching camera, an app for tracking power outages, and a head-mounted display for enhancing the vision of stroke victims.

Shah and Cauvel developed a Neopenda cap prototype while students at Columbia University. The money raised in the crowdfunding will go towards a further trial at the St. Francis Hospital Nsambya, in Kampala, this summer. They hope to sell the caps for $50 each, together with a tablet. The system can handle 15 babies at a time, she says.

Inside the cap is a flat plastic badge that sends out light to the baby’s head. This measures the amount of light reflected back from the blood, indicating oxygen saturation levels. The technology is similar to the finger clip pulse oximeters you see in clinics. The device also has a temperature gauge.


Shah and Cauvel still have a few details to work out. The badge needs to be made smaller, and there’s the question of what happens if the baby moves too much and the plastic is no longer touching the head. Then, it wouldn’t give a good reading.

Also, Shah and Cauvel have to find funding to take their idea forward–a difficult task as their device is more likely to deliver social benefit than large financial returns. “Everyone wants to help new borns but if we can’t return millions of dollars, it’s difficult to attract investors,” she says.

The Vodafone competition, however, comes with prizes worth $600,000 in all, including $300,000 for first place. Should Shah and Cauvel win, that would go a long way to securing their device’s future.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.