HearScreen: A case study in repurposing ideas

by | Jun 22, 2017 | Blog, Our Investments

At the South African Innovation Summit, we challenged innovators to adapt their existing ideas so that they benefit children under age 6. For example, a mobile application game can be used to teach the basics of early development to parents; or a data geo-mapping programme can be adapted to track the services provided to children. From our own work, a successful adaptation of an innovative idea to an early learning application is our project (and SAIS 2015 pitching den winner) hearScreen. Here’s how it happened.

In our experience, the business of commissioning innovation has two speeds. The first is stop and start; it’s the iterative process of testing, failing and adapting. The second is a headfirst trajectory, fuelled by blunt momentum and a considered leap of faith. At Innovation Edge, we appreciate both speeds, but this is a story of the latter.

We met hearScreen at the South African Innovation Summit in Cape Town, late 2015. Our executive director, Sonja, was sitting on the judging panel at one of the event’s many pitching competitions. This particular session had attracted a Pretoria-based audiologist named De Wet Swanepoel, who was looking for funding for a mobile phone application which allows the phone user to test for hearing loss using a purpose built app and a pair of calibrated headsets.

The application for the early learning sector was immediately evident. Disabling hearing loss affects around 2% of children, and many more with educationally significant hearing loss, and the percentage rises as household income falls. Children from poorer households are not only more likely to be affected by hearing loss, they are also more likely to start school with that hearing loss still undetected because routine hearing screening isn’t common. In fact, it’s rare in lower resource communities. Once affected children enter the schooling system, they are already behind their peers. Without intervention, the gap widens until catching up is almost impossible.
hearScreen would make screening young children cheap and accessible, considering that no expensive equipment or medical professionals are needed. Innovation Edge offered hearScreen funding to adapt the product for use in early learning centres and schools. We also assisted the team in fine-tuning the referral process – that is the system which delivers medical services within a close proximity to children once a hearing loss had been detected.

Less than four months later, hearScreen embarked on a pilot project in Mamelodi, a low resource community outside Pretoria. Teachers and ECD practitioners were trained to use the hearScreen app, which led to over 2000 children being tested and almost a fifth of those children being referred to local clinics for follow ups.
The pilot demonstrated the impact and potential of hearScreen, and we actively began looking for avenues to scale the project. We started off by assisting the project team in becoming more attractive to potential scaling funders, focusing on potential revenue streams, optimising the referral pipeline and carefully reviewing the intellectual property implications of the current legal structure.

We have since begun connecting hearScreen with possible funders, and also with partners who can assist the project in reaching the maximum number of young children possible. In comparison to the private sector where innovations have a more defined process for capturing the market, the route to scale is more complex in the development space. We have considered various combinations of government, civil society, and private sector partnerships. One lesson which we can share is that the complexity of these relationships must be considered from the start. The considerations of the path to market for social innovation projects will often bear on their design, implementation and evaluation right from the outset.

hearScreen continues to grow and evolve throughout this process. Shortly following the completion of their pilot in Mamelodi, the project team initiated a partnership with UK based Peek Vision – which offers a similar mobile health solution but focuses on vision screening. Innovation Edge will fund a joint hearScreen – Peek Vision application, which will break the cost barriers of screening children for hearing and sight loss in low resource settings.

Innovation Edge is always on the lookout for ideas which can be transformed into opportunities for young children to access early learning. Got what it takes?

Svetlana Doneva, Communications Manager, Ilifa Labantwana