Innovation Case Study: GE

When GE turned to students for design ideas, they came up with some user-friendly health-care concepts for Africa

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1. The Akuaba radio bracelet would allow instant communication among patient, midwife, and clinics

2. A field microscope would analyze water for parasites, and shoot out a red flag that doubles as a larva trap

3. A fetal ultrasound belt with built-in sensors would reduce the training required for technicians

4. A flower-like dispenser would allow villagers to chose a dye for insect repellent in their mosquito netting

5. A noninvasive scanner would detect malaria by looking through the skin of a patient's hand


GE Healthcare sells $15 billion a year worth of big X-ray machines, CAT scans, and ultrasound testing equipment. The health-care division of General Electric (GE ) usually differentiates its products by getting better and faster readings from its instruments—"feeds and speeds," as Lou Lenzi, the general manager of global design at GE Healthcare, puts it.

But to compete today, GE needs to focus on the human side of the equation, from ergonomics to emotions. And it needs to do that for cultures all around the world. For insight and inspiration, GE Healthcare recently turned to the undergraduate students of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., one of the world's top design schools. Consumer-product companies have long sponsored classes at Art Center, but this marked the first time GE Healthcare turned to students for ideas.


Art Center fielded three teams of eight students. GE Healthcare asked them to address the challenge of expanding health care into rural Africa in 2016. The teams were composed of students majoring in design, transportation, and the environment. All spent the fall semester on the project, and on Dec. 7, Art Center's "Super Thursday," they joined other students sponsored by BMW, Honda (HMC ), and Nestlé (NSRGY ) to present their designs.


An ultrasound device would wrap like a blanket around a woman's belly. The design would reduce the training required for technicians. Current machines depend on a skilled technician to guide a probe over the abdomen. The multiple imaging sensors woven into the blanket mean it would simply have to be correctly placed, a big advantage in countries where technicians are in short supply.

A noninvasive malaria scanner would detect disease by looking through the skin of a patient's hand. Malaria is currently diagnosed with a needle prick and a blood test. That scares some patients away and can delay treatment until results come back from labs. The scanner would be painted in earthy African colors.

Personalized mosquito netting would be dyed with colored insect repellent. Rates of malaria can drop as much as 80% in villages that use bed nets. Allowing people to personalize them might increase their willingness to use the nets.

A radio bracelet would alert a midwife when a pregnant patient is in trouble. Modeled on West African jewelry and decorated with indentations that resemble ritual scarification, it would be called Akuaba, a word associated with fertility in West Africa.

A dirigible would transport mothers-to-be with complications from remote regions to an acute-care hospital. The idea won praise for addressing a major problem in developing countries, the lack of infrastructure.

Companies typically pay $100,000 to sponsor a semester-long Art Center course. For its money, GE got a fresh perspective. Many of the projects stretched the imagination—floating clinics powered by river currents, probes that test for parasites in water and shoot out red warning flags. That was the point. The students encouraged GE Healthcare to reconsider the possibilities.

By Christopher Palmeri

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