How IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition helped us in the fight against parasitic worms

By Laura Braun, co-founder of Capta, 2018/19 winners of IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition

Parasitic worms affect more than one sixth of the world’s population (WHO). They target the most marginalised communities that lack safe water, sanitation, and health care. These worms, including hookworm and the flatworms that cause schistosomiasis, are contracted through contaminated water, soil or food.

Discussing design ideas to improve the microscope

Worm infections can lead to diarrhoea, stunted development and organ failure. The suffering from these diseases could be avoided as effective medication exists. Early diagnosis can also prevent significant harm; however, diagnostic tools are often unavailable in resource-poor settings, leaving many undiagnosed and untreated.

Over the past year, the Capta team has been developing a low-cost diagnostic tool to address this. This consists of a handheld microscope that connects to any smart device, such as a phone or tablet. Coupled with an image recognition application, the microscope analyses urine or stool samples to identify the number of eggs and type of parasite. This can make diagnosis faster and cheaper than existing tests, enabling more people to be tested and treated.

The current standard for diagnosing parasitic worms: counting eggs using a microscope

Capta’s journey so far

Kai and I, the co-founders of Capta, participated in IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition last year, winning £5,000 towards our idea. Thanks to the award, we travelled to Tanzania in October 2019 to visit a lab at the National Institute of Medical Research in Mwanza.

Here, we helped local parasitologists with sample collection and preparation. We captured hundreds of egg images using our microscope, which we needed to help train our image recognition system. It was an invaluable experience to see how the parasitologists work in the field and what challenges they are exposed to. During our time in Tanzania we also conducted some market research, speaking with local health workers (our target user base) to find out what features they would want to see in the finished product.

Since then, we have been further developing our product. Time has been the major limiting factor for us, as we are both writing up our PhDs. To maintain momentum, we decided to grow our team. We now have a dedicated Business Development Representative, Jonathan, who has been a fantastic addition to the team. Thanks to him, we have been able to pursue the potential application of Capta in the livestock industry.

Like humans, animals can also be infected with worms, and many farmers have expressed an interest in our tool. This year we partnered with several farmers in the UK, including Barber farmers, a sheep farm in Exeter. These farmers are providing us with infected stool samples and thereby helping us build our database of worm egg images.

Invaluable experience for a start-up

Visiting Barber farmers, one of our partners helping us develop the diagnostic tool for livestock

The competition was a great experience for us. It helped us improve and feel more confident about our pitch, which we have since given at several other competitions, including the Venture Catalyst Challenge, Ideas to Impact Challenge, and the American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene Innovation Pitch Competition.

The funding, on the other hand, has enabled us to go to the field and further develop our diagnostic tool. Our goal for this year (besides graduating!) is to test Capta in the field – for both humans and livestock.

We really encourage anyone with a health-related start-up idea to consider applying for IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition. Even if you do not win, you will gain exposure to pitching your idea to a group of health experts. And if you do win, then your idea might develop into a business sooner than you thought!

Join us at this year’s virtual Student Challenges Competition final on 30 June at 5pm.

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