Tell us about your work
Kailas from her student days at the National Institute of Design (NID) was geared by the desire to bring in the much-needed transformation in the healthcare system in India. The product that she has developed to detect hearing problem in babies is on one hand highly affordable and on the other, safe and easy to use on even a one-day old baby.
While her classmates at India’s prestigious National Institute of Design (NID), in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, were creating stylish new versions of household products, or innovative fabrics, Neeti Kailas was redesigning the bedpan for India’s crowded public hospitals. The bedpan project sparked a passion to use design to transform health care in her native country. To this end, she has focused her attention on those who can be disadvantaged at the very start of their lives, newborn babies. There are over 100,000 babies born with hearing impairment in India, and, if this is not detected at an early stage, it can seriously impede the development of speech, language and cognition with a concomitant reduction in opportunity and quality of life. Kailas’s non-invasive, portable diagnostic device to facilitate routine screening of newborn babies has the potential to help many hundreds of children at a fundamental stage of their development.
Neeti, a post-graduate in Design and Business, actually hails from Chennai and studied in India and abroad. She has also worked abroad for many years.
She has a Graduate Diploma in Product Design from the National Institute of Design, India, and a Masters in Industrial Design from the Art Centre College of Design, California, United States.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Call it providence. Twelve years ago, Neeti Kailas happened to walk the corridors of Ahmedabad’s Vikram Sarabhai Hospital. She was a student of product design then, at the National Institute of Design (NID) and was trying to ascertain potential project ideas—design problems she could find solutions to. That walk turned out to be a game changer. All around her, she could see things that needed fixing. Kailas decided that she was the woman for the job.
The young designer is now co-founder and director at Sohum Innovation Lab, an initiative that thrives on high-impact, affordable health care projects. Prominent among her design solutions has been a non-invasive, portable diagnostic device to facilitate routine screening of newborn babies for hearing loss. This product, created in 2014, has the potential to help children at the fundamental stages of development. It earned her the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise last year.
“Problem-solving for me is exciting. What we should be designing rather than how we should be designing it is a bigger concern for me,” says Kailas. It is important to ask “why are we doing it? Is it profitable for the business? Is it coming from a social standpoint?”
How will your work benefit the community?
Neeti Kailas has always been passionate about healthcare. While in the Industrial Design graduate program at ArtCenter, her pregnancy risk-assessment kit, Aadhya, was exhibited in the Student Gallery.
Today, inspired by a childhood friend in India who was born deaf, Kailas is working to address another critical yet largely ignored healthcare need in resource-poor communities worldwide—routine hearing screening of newborns, crucial to their future language development.
An inexpensive, easy-to-use, portable diagnostic device that she designed with engineer Nitin Sisodia has been turning heads.
In 2014, as one of five visionary Young Laureates, Kailas received the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise; and this year Forbes India included her on its “30 Under 30” list. The ensuing international press attention, says Kailas, has been great for the startup Sohum Innovation Lab that she and Sisodia co-founded.
“To me, design is about problem solving, and thinking about how I can have maximum impact on society. Some of the problems we are trying to solve are systemic—they cannot be solved in isolation, but need more than one type of innovation to be effective and sustainable.”
Using Rolex Award funds to conduct a clinical evaluation of the prototype device, the duo have been setting up a network of healthcare professionals in India who can diagnose or treat deafness. Now it’s up to investors and other supporters to help bring the project to scale.
Tell us about your career path
The businesswoman in the designer kicked in quite early. Consider that while doing her master’s (Industrial design) at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Kailas focussed on bringing new ideas to the market as well as on contextual innovation. “In her time with us at Art Center’s Graduate ID [industrial design] department, Neeti distinguished herself with her persistent and clear focus on goals. She elected to take advantage of Art Center’s joint study programme with INSEAD, and as a result became very serious about the business aspects of design,” says Katherine Bennett, associate professor, grad and undergrad industrial design, humanities and science, Art Center.
Unsurprisingly then, Kailas set up Sohum Innovation Lab in 2012, along with Nitin Sisodia, a fellow NID-ian. For a while, the two performed the multiple roles of peon, CEO and accountant themselves. Today, they have a team of 10, comprising hardware engineers, software engineers and designers. They approach their work by consulting doctors and have even signed an MoU with Manipal College of Allied Health Sciences. They are also partnering with Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Ten years on, Kailas wants to have played a key role in changing the face of affordable health care solutions. It could be through a device, a partnership, an app, an awareness campaign, or a service. Call it choice. And she has plenty of it.