The Shaikh Zayed Institute for Paediatric Surgical Innovation is housed in the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington, the United States. Image Credit: WAM

Abu Dhabi: Tucked away on the top floor of a renowned children’s hospital, the educational efforts of a medical institute in Washington are paving the way for more innovation in childcare.

With annual fellowships for deserving health-care professionals, and a training programme for university students, the Shaikh Zayed Institute for Paediatric Surgical Innovation is working to make sure that ideas to advance medicine truly reach fruition.

The process of ensuring that an innovative thought becomes commercially viable can be challenging, and this can be a reason why important technologies for childcare do not become available to patients across the world, Dr Martha Houle, director of education at the Institute, told Gulf News.

“The long-term goal of these educational ventures is therefore to help people who have ideas understand how to put them into practice,” she said.

The Institute, which is housed at the Children’s National Medical Centre, was established following a $150 million (Dh550 million) gift from the Abu Dhabi Government in 2009. The grant, which is used for both education and research, was made in honour of the UAE founding father and first president, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

“The grant extends until summer 2014 and has been providing for all of our educational activities till date. Some fellows and students coming for our programmes from the United States also receive grants from other entities,” Dr Houle said.

Chief among these educational ventures is a $20,000 (Dh73,460) fellowship presented to select professionals.

“The recipients, who could be engineers or surgeons, for example, must demonstrate interest in entrepreneurial innovation. We look for people who have identified a challenge in health-care provision and are looking for viable solutions. Over a period of year, the grant allows them to develop the solution and make it commercially feasible, and even helps them to apply for a patent when applicable,” said Dr Floortje Blindenbach-Driessen, assistant professor at George Washington University and academic director of innovation and entrepreneurship education at the Institute.

In 2011, when the fellowship programme was first introduced, four participants were accepted. The Institute accepted five fellows in 2012, and three applicants have been selected for the programme beginning in 2013.

Provisional applications for patents have also been filed for a number of projects that have emerged from this programme.

“One of the projects is a mobile application that aims to help children and their families manage an ostomy [a surgically created opening in the body for the discharge of body waste]. Patients with an ostomy can get easily dehydrated or develop infections if they are not careful, and need to report their activities carefully to treating physicians. This is where the application would come in use,” Dr Houle said.


Other projects have focused on developing minimally invasive surgical tools, training methods for infants and devices to measure pain.

The Institute’s Student Innovators Programme, geared mainly towards university students, has also been gaining increasing popularity since it was started in 2011.

“The programme aims to show students how they can undertake innovation in the real world,” explained Dr Houle.

The first year saw eight participants. In 2012, there were 14 trainees, with three of them travelling from Abu Dhabi-based universities. This number increased to 31 students in 2013, with five of the participants from Abu Dhabi.

“One element of the programme is a three-day Hack-A-Thon, where students hack away at a set of ideas to arrive at the most feasible and practical ones. It shows participants that they must come up with many ideas, and refine them to find the most effective one,” Dr Blindenbach-Driessen said.

Every society needs STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) students, and the innovators initiative also seeks to create an interest in pursuing these fields of study, she added. In addition, concepts like intellectual property rights and the uses of focus groups to vet a technology are also covered.

Elaborating on the benefits of the Abu Dhabi Government grant, Dr Houle said that it had enabled the Institute to set up programmes that had not been established before.

“Our educational efforts seek to educate the next generation of scientific minds so that they can transform health care for children. We are also looking forward to welcoming a fellow from the UAE,” she added.