Winner Spotlight: Unima Diagnoses Disease in Real Time—Using a Sheet of Paper
Diagnosing diseases can be expensive and time-consuming. Mexico-based Unima is a biotechnology startup that developed a solution aiming to fix both predicaments. The company has developed a fast and low-cost diagnostic technology that allows health data collection globally and analytics in real time. It’s first focus? Tuberculosis.
Unima was the winner in the Challenge Cup Mexico City health category and will go on to the Challenge Festival in May. Unima’s Director General Jose Luis Nuno talks about how his company’s solution can better diagnose TB.
Ten million new people are infected with tuberculosis each year. Why is this number so large?
One thing that’s related to it is poverty. In very poor places most of the people live very close together, and sometimes if you have one person with tuberculosis it can spread across a whole group quickly. Tuberculosis is a very contagious disease.
Most importantly, though, in poor regions such as Latin America and Africa, the cost of diagnosing people is very high. Normally you are catching cases more easily; if someone has tuberculosis you’re just seeing it. But in those places it’s caught late because the governments don’t have enough money to screen for it. The lack of money is a very big factor in this high spreading of tuberculosis. Right now tuberculosis is one of the most important diseases in the world. It’s been growing faster than HIV and it’s one of the fastest growing diseases, especially in the developing world.
Explain how your solution helps with this diagnosing deficiency.
The idea is that we have a very fast and low-cost diagnosis technology. It can be used by people without any technical training. The goal is to empower people working outside of hospitals—for example, those in rural areas—so they can go directly to the point of care, like a clinic, test people and have a diagnosis in less time so they can start treating patients as early as possible. If you start treating patients early, you will increase the chances of survival and the quality of life, of course. It’s very important.
We developed a process that can be done outside of the lab, even without electricity, just with a special piece of paper. When you put a drop of blood on the piece of paper, it changes in color. You take a picture with a smartphone, and this application will evaluate the picture and tell you a diagnosis. This information also is entered into a central server.
Because this information is very volatile we store it securely. If you are doing an analysis you can define if tuberculosis is growing because of the movement of people. And you can use this information to create real-time analytics. If you’re a decisionmaker, you can create policies to stop the spread of the disease.
How long did it take to develop this technology?
We have been working on it for four years, and I think we need another year for large-scale testing in Mexico and Africa. So altogether it’ll take five years to get to market.
You had a slide during your five-minute presentation that included a whole host of logos for a partners—NGOs and medical agencies to help with R&D, pilots, etc. What’s been the value of these varied partnerships?
For example, we got funding through a grant by USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This grant was for large-scale testing that we are doing in Mexico and later in Africa. We have also partnered with Hewlett-Packard to figure out data analysis. We have a partnership with Partners in Health—they’re one of the most important NGOs in the world. We’ve partnered with researchers in several universities in the U.S. to do testing. Also we’re starting to develop a few applications for influenza. We’re working with MIT on that.
I think partnerships are a very big part of the project and the success of our product. To increase knowledge, experience, resources we’ve had to do it. And it’s been very important.
What is your background and connection to this cause?
I’m a chemical engineer. I have a Master’s in biotech. I have a Ph.D. in economics and a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering. For the first part of my career I was an employee in the pharma industry. Somehow, then, I ended up in marketing and sales.
Now I’m the CEO, and I manage everything with strategic partnerships.
In terms of the rollout, where do you plan to expand after Mexico?
We have to start in Mexico because part of the agreement with USAID says to do that. At the end of this year if we find good results we can start working in maybe Malawi and Kenya.