Home CompaniesB2B How A 3D Imaging Startup Went From Weighing Pigs to Tackling Childhood Malnutrition

How A 3D Imaging Startup Went From Weighing Pigs to Tackling Childhood Malnutrition

by Holly Beilin

“This is very, very important to solve because if you don’t get that nutritional piece right, then your investments in educating that kid — both for the kid individually and for the country — aren’t going to create the economic payoff that you expect.” 

So said Bill Gates, speaking to Vox Media on a podcast about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2018 Goalkeepers Report. He was referring to a major global challenge the report highlighted: the prevalence of stunting, or substantially reduced growth, in children in low-income countries. 

According to the Gates Foundation, the improper nutrition that leads to stunting means that these children will be irreversibly affected both physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. The Gates Foundation has therefore made nutrition a strategic pillar of their efforts to help developing nations.

Unfortunately, it’s not an easy challenge to solve: Gates went on to tell Vox that “going out and finding those kids who are falling behind and weighing them… is actually fairly difficult.” One of the biggest obstacles is getting accurate measurements of the child as he or she grows, especially with very limited resources and time. The most commonly-used instruments for measurement right now are a measuring tape and a wooden board.

One startup thinks they’ve come up with a better solution using 3D imaging technology. Athens, GA-based Body Surface Translations (BST) has received multiple grants from the Gates Foundation to test this theory and see if their portable AutoAnthro technology can make a dent in the worldwide crisis.

But before BST was tackling child malnutrition, they wanted to solve quite a different problem: measuring livestock.

“If a farmer doesn’t bring an animal to market at the correct weight, they actually get penalized by the pound,” Dr. Gene Alexander, BST’s CTO, tells Hypepotamus. Dr. Alexander is an expert in computer vision and 3D scanning of human biomechanics, as well as a former Stanford engineering professor.

The startup was founded in 2007 by CEO and veterinarian Gregg BeVier to solve this financial problem faced by farmers. Though they went through quite a few tests, it was difficult to get exact measurements on swine.

“Then we got contacted by the folks at the Gates Foundation,” says Dr. Alexander. In 2014, the non-profit reached out to see if BST’s technology could be tweaked to estimate children’s size and growth.

“It’s actually a little bit of an easier problem than trying to estimate swine weight,” says Dr. Alexander. With an initial grant, the team developed the tool and paired up with researchers at Emory University to test it on 500 children in Atlanta.

The tool worked just as well as manual measurement, was more accurate over time (since it eliminated human error), and was quite a bit quicker, according to Dr. Alexander. With another grant, the CDC is currently in the midst of a larger study out in the field, one following 600 children in Guatemala and the other following 500 children in Kenya. 

So far, Dr. Alexander says the results are promising. “The preliminary results of that were good enough that we’re now in a third Gates grant to get the product completely ready for commercial release in the developing world.”

The technology works by taking a picture of the child on a 3D camera, using just a tablet or smart phone. The AutoAnthro program calculates the child’s measurements, transmitting all of the data to the cloud.

“You can imagine if you have 10 different people that do measurements across time, there’s a little bit of inconsistency. With an automated system, it doesn’t really matter who’s pushing the button, the results remain consistent because of the device,” says Dr. Alexander.

While continuing to fine-tune the system, the team is in talks with organizations like UNICEF, whom they think will be their initial clients. Right now, the AutoAnthro system is about $1500, but Dr. Alexander says the goal is to get that down to $600.

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