Yale Start-Up Wins $250,000 grant from USAID’s Saving Lives at Birth Partnership

PremieBreathe, a start-up created by Yale students and faculty, has won a $250,0000 grant for Yale from the USAID’s Saving Lives at Birth partnership for its breathing aid for premature infants.

More than 1.5 million newborns die each year from respiratory complications, with 99% of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. PremieBreathe has developed a low-cost infant respirator that delivers warmed, humidified, and oxygenated air to reduce airway irritation and keep infants breathing normally. 

The company was one of 12 selected from more than 650 submissions to Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development. The grant, which will go to Yale pending negotiation, will help fund preparation of the device for clinical testing, scheduled to begin in Ethiopia early next year.

“Clinical trials will be a crucial validation that we’ve designed a device that does what it was intended to — save newborn lives,” said Katy Chan (’15), CEO and full-time lead for PremieBreathe.

Charles Stone ’14, a double major in mechanical engineering and global affairs, began work on the project as a senior thesis in the lab of Prof. Anjelica Gonzalez, the Donna L. Dubinsky Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering. Gonzalez, who serves as the Principal Investigator for the project, said the USAID grant will help move the project from research design to the clinical validation phase. “The support of USAID and other well-established entities in global health really emphasize the need for new and affordable medical devices,” she said. “We are thrilled to be a part of this initiative."

The project started with a collaboration request from the Global Health Leadership Institute (GHLI) between Engineering (Gonzalez, Prof. Mark Saltzman in BME, and Dr. Joseph Zinter at the CEID) and the Pediatrics department at the Yale School of Medicine (Dr. Lei Chen and Dr. Linda D. Arnold). Gonzalez and Chen decided to focus on neonatal respiratory support in the clinical settings of Rwanda and Ethiopia. The Gonzalez lab undertook the engineering, design, and testing; Lei advised on clinical specifications.

“By pooling intellectual and university resources, we were able to interest undergraduate students to aid in the development of a project that could have a significant social impact,” Gonzalez said. “To me, this is an example of the best of Yale coming together to make positive change.”

“We agreed there was no reason this couldn't be done, especially with a strong engineering team in place,” Stone said. The core team soon grew to include Chan, a biomedical engineer, Jordan Sabin (’16), a mechanical engineer, and Shirin Ahmed (’12) with the Global Health Leadership Institute (GHLI). The company has since expanded to include student members Maddie Knapp ‘17 and Medha Vyavahare ‘17, Erik Tharp ’16, and David Wang ‘18.

GHLI provided support to PremieBreathe and facilitated a relationship with Ayder Referral Hospital in Ethiopia. The venture advanced with a summer fellowship in the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID) and Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) provided resources and mentorship.

When Chan and Sabin visited Ethiopia in 2015, they saw doctors using devices cobbled together with old tubing and soda cans to deliver oxygen to vulnerable infants. Besides being too costly for many of these healthcare facilities, existing respirators require reliable electricity, sterile water, compressed oxygen, and other resources scarce at hospitals in the region.

With these economic and environmental constraints in mind, the team spent two years refining the device and getting feedback from partners in Ethiopia and their mentors at Yale. The result is a device expected to retail for approximately one-fifth the cost of commercially available equivalents. It also operates independent of significant clinical infrastructure. 

Earlier this year, PremieBreathe was the first admitted to the Global Social Venture Creation Program, established by the (YEI) and InnovateHealth Yale to support social ventures that require funding to travel abroad. The company also won the first Yale College Dean’s Challenge for Social Innovation, providing access to the YEI Fellowship—a 10-week boot camp for accelerating startups. 

“The support we’ve received demonstrates how well Yale resources work together on a truly interdisciplinary project,” Sabin said.

The Saving Lives at Birth partnership was launched in 2011 to foster groundbreaking, scalable solutions to end infant and maternal mortality around the time of birth. It includes the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada), Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

For more information about PremieBreathe, please contact Medha Vyavahare at (864) 569-4828 or medha.vyavahare@yale.edu