December 16, 2014 | By Jake Weber
While Ebola may be consuming Americans' attention regarding health crises in Africa, Katie Kirsch, '12, is working to solve less dramatic but equally critical needs. Kirsch is one of three twentysomething women who together formed Sisu Global Health, a Grand Rapids-based medical device developer and manufacturer focused on an African market. The company recently received a $250,000 USAID grant to further its operations in Ghana.
Sisu Global Health grew from two organizations out of the University of Michigan that created medical devices, including the award-winning Hemafuse auto-transfusion device developed by Gillian Henker, previously of Design Innovations for Infants and Mothers Everywhere. The Hemafuse collects blood from an internally bleeding patient and returns it to their bloodstream through a blood bag, eliminating the need for banked blood, which is expensive and often unavailable in developing-world healthcare systems. Just as important, the Hemafuse uses no electricity and can be operated by just one surgeon.
Kirsch, Henker, and Carolyn Yarina joined together after seeing that throughout the developing world, medical devices in healthcare institutions were either being dumped or used improperly, causing greater problems for the entire healthcare system. Designing products to meet market needs may seem like an obvious action, but Kirsch, Sisu's chief marketing officer, notes that this philosophy is far from standard among foreigners working in Africa.
For instance, "We don't take devices that are decommissioned from the U.S.," she says, explaining that while many nonprofit organizations have good intentions, this common practice generally yields poor outcomes. "Secondhand equipment may work for a few years and then has to be thrown away, in a country that has no capacity to dispose of it properly."
In contrast, says Kirsch, "Sisu is designing devices on the ground, where the users are." She notes that on one trip, a doctor snatched up a prototype with the intention of rushing it to a patient, not realizing it was a model made of cardboard. "There's a lot of excitement when we bring prototypes," she says. "Seeing that excitement and generating that feedback is really exciting."
Kirsch, also notes that marketing a tech startup in Africa is a very different prospect. "Even though we believe we have a huge potential customer base, focusing on traditional social media sites or even email is ineffective. The emphasis is on print and person-to-person in Ghana," she explains. "My favorite thing is to walk somewhere, knock on a door, and start talking to hospitals and doctors. We gather lots of data in an anthropological sense as well as in a technical sense."
Sisu is actually Kirsch's second professional connection to Africa; she spent much of 2012-13 in Rwanda, teaching English to high school students as a Fulbright teaching fellow. And her international experience is broader still: As an Albion undergraduate, Kirsch did biology research in Suriname, and later was among the first group of interns working for the U.S. Embassy in the South American country's capital, Paramaribo.
"I've really enjoyed studying and working internationally," says Kirsch, who graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with degrees in English and French. "The rules of how to go about business, work, and play differ in each new place. I'm constantly learning, both in that I get to wear many hats in my role at Sisu and by working in a new culture."
Kirsch is enthusiastic about Sisu's potential as an entrepreneurial enterprise and a source for positive change. "We know that hospitals are dealing with a lack of personnel and electricity, and we can solve this in a capitalistic sense. This appeals to people—to our customers and supporters. We're doing good and we're selling products. That's been our ideological mission as well as our marketing one."
• Read more about Sisu Global Health and its philosophy in Next Billion ("Customers as Partners") and in Entrepreneur magazine ("3 College Startups Going the Distance").
• The company also was recently featured on Forbes.com and in the Grand Rapids Business Journal.
• Read about Sisu Global Health's crowdfunding campaign to perform a training workshop in Zimbabwe next spring.