The inventor of an ingenious device for identifying hearing problems in newborns is among this year's winners of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Indian designer Neeti Kailas - who, from the start of her career, has applied her knowledge and skills to humanitarian issues - scooped the prize for her Sohum hearing test prototype, which was devised for (and is being tested in) Indian hospitals.
This year's group of five Laureates once again shows the varied scope of the Awards, which honour 'extraordinary individuals who possess the courage and conviction to take on major challenges'. Fellow winners range from Saudi Arabia's Hosam Zowawi - who is developing rapid tests to detect the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria - to Italy's Francesco Sauro, who is researching the vast quartzite caves of South America's fabled tabletop mountains. But it was Kalias who particularly caught our attention for her humble yet innovative approach to design.
'I want to use my design skills to make an impact,' she says. Kailas' goal is to transform healthcare in her native country and her method for research and development is multifaceted. 'Design allows me to approach a problem from multiple perspectives,' she explains. 'It lets me dwell on the diversity.'
Kailas' affordable, battery-operated Sohum device was developed in tandem with her engineer husband. It can be used in noisy environments and avoids problems linked to anesthesia. Winning the Award (which includes a grant of CHF50,000) will allow Kailas to continue trials on her prototype, with the goal of launching it by 2016. 'These are not achievements awards - these are awards to make things happen,' explained Rebecca Irvin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex, when presenting the Laureates - a mantra closely aligned with Kailas' creative ambitions.
Rolex's Awards for Enterprise were launched in 1976, when the Rolex Oyster Chronometer (the first waterproof wristwatch, an important moment in horology) turned 50, and the brand decided to mark this anniversary with a positive initiative that would contribute to the global human heritage. The bi-annual programme gives recognition to projects in the fields of applied technology, cultural heritage, science and health, exploration and the environment. Every alternate edition of the award is dedicated to those under 30 years old: 'The future of the planet is in the hands of the next generation,' Irvin asserts. 'Problems are becoming more and more complex; new creative thinking is needed'.
Kailas' work is a strong reflection of this ethos, with even her earliest projects having a humanitarian focus. 'My first ever design project was to redesign a bed-pan,' the designer explains. 'Several projects later, we were constantly making sure that we were in-fact, solving the right problem. This is design to me: finding the right problem to solve.'