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It's A Necklace And It Could Be A Lifesaver: Wearable Health Gadgets

Kushi Baby pendant
Courtesy of Kushi Baby
Kushi Baby pendant

What if something you wore could improve your health?

That was the idea behind UNICEF's which called out to the world of "makers, engineers, do-gooders, executives, computer scientists, inventors, innovators."

The contest drew 250 submissions from 46 countries across 6 continents. The entrants didn't have to actually make the device – sketches would be accepted. Although some wearables were indeed three-dimensional.

This month two winners were announced, each earning a $15,000 prize plus mentoring to help bring the devices to market in the developing world.

"We were looking for innovations that would create 'need to have' and not just 'nice to have' wearables that could truly impact the lives of vulnerable children," says Dominic Vergine of the firm, , a technology development company that partnered with UNICEF and design and strategy firm on the competition.

"Both of our winners absolutely fit these criteria, and we love that the winning products are designed to be used by the children themselves," he adds.

Here's a profile of the two winners: Khushi Baby (which we previously covered in Goats and Soda) and SoaPen as well as two of the runners-up.

Creators: Five graduate and undergraduate students, most from Yale.

What it does: Adds a digital chip to the black thread necklace many Northern Indian babies wear. The chip stores data on vaccines administered.

Why it matters: Parents in this region typically keep vaccine info in paper logs that are sometimes lost or not up-to-date. Khushi Baby can transfer current records to health officials via smartphone or Internet — a critical step in an outbreak when relevant vaccine data needs to be checked.

Kinks to iron out: Digital chips can be taken out of the necklace or data can be added that would wipe out the vaccine information. The team is working on encryption measures to bar unauthorized users.

Status: Clinical trials are being launched in conjunction with Seva Mandir, an NGO based in India.

/ Courtesy of SoaPen
Courtesy of SoaPen


Creators: Graduates of the Parsons School of Design in New York City.

What it does: Makes it easier for kids to wash their hands. It's a cylinder-shaped bar of soap, wrapped in a peelable casing made of cardboard and worn on the wrist. Roll down the casing and wash up! The soap can be used as a crayon as well, so parents or teachers can draw a design on the child's hand and challenge the kid to wash it off. If there's color left, scrub harder!

Why it matters: Soap for handwashing is effective at removing germs but not always available at schools in the developing world.

Kinks to work out: Find inexpensive supplies that can be used by local people and train them to make the SoaPens. The goal, says the team, is to keep costs low and create jobs.

Status: Being tested on kids ages 3 to 6 in Indian schools.


Creators: Boyfriend molecular biologist and girlfriend ad agency designer in New York City.

What it does: It's a bracelet made of plastic, with sensors embedded that can compare the temperature and sweat patterns of the wearer to those associated with malaria. Dangerous levels make the band glow and send an alert to a parent's or doctor's phone.

Why It Matters: Malaria, a problem especially in sub-Saharan Africa, kills more than half a million kids under 5 every year. Most die within the first 24 to 48 hours. So speedy treatment is of the essence.

Kinks to Work Out: Devices that report vital signs like fever have to be accurate to a fault to gain a country's approval for use. The team is perfecting the device to guarantee accurate readings.

Status: Working on prototype.


Creators: Co-worker designers at an advertising agency in Portland, Ore.

What it does: It's a bracelet with a light bulb. Plop Droplet in a container of water and the bulb will emit UV light that can kill bacteria.

Why It Matters: According to UNICEF, some 1,800 children a day die from diarrheal diseases "linked to water, sanitation and hygiene." A portable water purifying device would be a boon.

Kinks to Work Out: For the competition, the team came up with the design but not a working model. Now they've got to build Droplet and figure out how to encode information to send to public health agencies on the source of the water it purifies and the contaminants it contained.

Status: Still trying to make it work!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fran Kritz