Ubenwa helping doctors, parents know there’s more to a baby’s cry – CEO

CHARLES C. ONU, Chief Executive Officer and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lead at Ubenwa, a diagnostic software developer for rapid detection of medical anomalies in infant cry sounds, in this interview with EBUNOLUWA LADIPO, explains the importance of a baby’s cry and how it is using technology to detect their needs varying from emotional to health, with the use of machine learning and AI.

Can you give an insight into how Ubenwa works and its practicality in Nigeria?

Ubenwa health is a company focused on sound-based medical diagnostics, and the first technology we are developing is one that uses the infants’ cry sound to detect the early onset of medical conditions that affect them. This is important for early diagnosis because babies are at a point in their lives where they cannot communicate as we adults can and their cries are essentially the only means they communicate with the outside world to seek attention and cry for help.

One of the things we’ve learnt in our research is that the infants’ cries hold a lot of information about their health and this is what we are trying to extract at Ubenwa. The reason for the existence of the connection between health and the cry of the baby is because babies have no control over their cry sounds. The cry is an involuntary response to internal or external stimulus, and their cry is directly coordinated by the central nervous system (CNS) what this means is that, when there is a medical condition that affects the CNS, it ultimately changes the pattern of their cries.

About its practicality in Nigeria, Ubenwa is developing its technology into everyday devices from smartphone applications, to baby monitors and the goal is to enable this to be acceptable to parents, as well as clinicians regardless of where they are. This will also enable us to use the powerful computers we carry in our pockets today essentially, to conduct medical diagnostics that could only have been possible with very complex equipment like MRIs or CT scanning machines.

What inspired Ubenwa and why this line of health tech?

For me, the thing that really sets me on this path of infant health is specifically my own experiences working in the healthcare sector. I was always interested in medicine and I almost studied it when I finished secondary school but I couldn’t give up mathematics. Hence, I went for engineering but I stayed interested in medicine, and volunteered for NGOs during my undergraduate days and afterward. That was when I first came in contact with the problem of birth asphyxia which is the first thing we started working on at Ubenwa and realising how late detection could lead to such dramatic consequences in the lives of individuals like deafness, paralysis, and so on.

Also, I moved to Montreal, Canada seven years ago having completed a four-year journey as a software engineer in Nigeria, and in the last seven years, I have been working in intensive care units (ICUs) largely in Canada, working with doctors who take care of newborns to think about how we can use signals that we are collecting in the ICU to improve the care that is delivered. There is still a significant non-zero level of infant disability and mortality even in developed countries, and parents especially for the first time are yearning for a way to really know if this different cry my baby is crying should be paid attention to or if it’s just a regular cry.

This is the kind of problem we are trying to solve with Ubenwa. It is essentially allowing parents to communicate even better with their children at such a time when the babies have not developed adult speech or human speech in general. Ubenwa is largely inspired by my experiences, as well as my co-founders’ who have also seen firsthand the challenges and problems that come from late detection of medical conditions in babies.

You are a Nigerian-owned company but based in Canada, what are your plans to fully launch in your home country?

A significant part of the work we are doing at Ubenwa is research and development because nothing like this exists today. There are so many scientific problems to solve to make this possible and so it’s largely been a collaboration between computer scientists, medical engineers, and doctors-neonatologists specifically.

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Ubenwa partners with six hospitals internationally, four of which are in Nigeria, and so in some sense, we have already launched in Nigeria. We work currently with Enugu State University teaching hospital, River State University teaching hospital, Lagos University teaching hospital, and Lagos state University teaching hospital. This is for research and development, we have sites in Nigeria, Brazil, and Canada. Also, as we are launching our first application for parents, the baby cry tracker app, this is currently available for parents in Nigeria and in Canada to sign up for, and participate in the early access program known as a private beta.

You recently raised a $2.5 million pre-seed funding, what will this funding enable you to achieve?

The key thing we are pursuing with this funding is to build our consumer app and launch it for parents. I just mentioned that we are currently in beta testing and the goal is to improve the product, and get close feedback from users, as well as prepare for a public launch essentially where it is openly available for people to download and use.

We want to provide parents the opportunity to connect their app to their existing baby monitor devices. One of the things that are becoming very common for new parents is the use of baby monitors like audio-visual devices that you can use to observe a baby that you are not in the same room with, or when they are asleep. So, through our application programming interface (API), we are allowing each parent to connect with their babies, not just through the Ubenwa app.

The second objective is to continue to advance our research and development. We want to finalise the clinical programme we are doing internationally and begin the process of getting regulatory approval for our diagnostic tool as a medical device.

An initiative like this takes time before general acceptability, how do you plan to navigate through this?

There is always going to be a resistance to new technologies in some quarters especially when it’s something that we have not used before. One good thing though about the infant’s cry sound is everyone that we have partnered with, for the most part, has found it intuitive. The doctors on one hand that we work it, the first time we pitched to them, this made sense to them from their clinical training that there’s more information to a baby’s cry because some of them can tell you this baby doesn’t cry very well or the cry sounds like a screeching sound and should be looked at but they never knew what the science behind it was and for them, it made sense that we can actually build a machine that can learn these patterns and ultimately be able to standardise the procedures of listening to babies’ cries.

The same goes for parents too, and here we are looking at not just cries for emotional needs but specifically, cries that indicate a health problem and this is something that most people upon first or second hearing should believe that babies are able to communicate their needs through their cry. Nevertheless, there are hurdles to climb in terms of making this generally acceptable and also trusted, and this is exactly why we are working with doctors for this phase of the research and development, making sure that the experts are part of the development, as a result, they will be part of our ambassadors to make people understand it, accept it and communicate to others.

To increase accessibility, are you looking at signing partnerships with more Nigerian hospitals?

Yes, we already have four hospitals and we are actively seeking more partnerships as applicable. We have more public hospitals in our system and we are also inclined to private hospitals just to have both sides of the coin in Nigeria.

What’s your view about Nigeria’s business environment?

Nigeria is a very complicated place as we can all agree. Running a business here is not trivial today, inflation here is multiple times what we see on average globally. However, I find that Nigeria continues to remain a unique place, it is still the largest market in Africa and a place of huge opportunities in terms of people in the startup ecosystem and outside it as well.

I also think that there is a future in which Nigeria finds its feet economically, and enables technology like Ubenwa and others to create a new future that enables them to really thrive. However, what is missing in the ecosystem is being able to support scientific innovation and allowing that to move from the lab in universities, and the minds of young people into real products that impact lives.

Where do you see Ubenwa in the next five years?

In five years, we want to have convinced the world that the infant cry is a vital sign. Vital sign because this is what we as a team have come to realise that there is so much information in the cry of babies. There is no reason why we should not be using this every day in and out of the healthcare system.

Whenever you go to see the doctor, regardless of your medical condition, your blood pressure will be measured because it’s considered to be a vital sign and that’s the kind of role we see the infant cry playing in the lives of babies, and we want to standardise that as an assessment, as well as make it widely accessible to parents for use at home.