Last month, Matibabu was crowned the winner of Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. This was accompanied with a $33,000 cash prize and massive media coverage from traditional international media houses like BBC.
This wasn't Matibabu's first time. The startup, thanks to the uniqueness of its solution, has been featured in a couple of western international media. Check here and here.
But, let's trace the roots to the startup that was started five years ago and seems to be going strong.
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The start: 2013
The Matibabu team first came together in 2013 according to Moris Atwine, who is part of the Matibabu team. At that time, they called themselves Team Code 8 and their product Matibabu. They were six people at the point of the start and are still holding their respective positions to date.
"Since the start, Matibabu has been centered around 6 individuals, and all handling the same positions as Day One," Moris wrote. This includes Moris Atwine, Brian Gitta, Josiah Kavuma, Simon Lubambo, and Shafik Ssekitto.
That very year, they went ahead and won Microsoft's Imagine Cup. "The Key achievements in 2013, was winning the ImagineCup National finals to further bringing the UN Empowerment Award at the World Finals," Moris said. This came along with 12,000 USD.
That same year, Matibabu managed to become the winners of another competition. "We managed to become the winners TechCon 2013, USAID's Higher Education Student Network Global Contest," Moris wrote.
The year essentially kicked off a plethora of competitions and awards that they have won over time.
The unending journey of iterations: 2014 - 2015
In 2014, the Matibabu team started focusing on coming up with prototypes. They had no idea that they were kicking off an unending loop of prototyping. Important to note is that the events in this period happened co-currently sometimes in the period between 2014 and 2015.
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"In the first generation of prototyping, we were trying to understand how light can easily penetrate red blood cells," Moris says. But, there was a lot of interference to this prototype that they had to revisit it.
"There was a lot of external interference which led us to our second prototype where we addressed the issue of external interference," Moris says. Though this also had its shortcomings as "there were no conclusive results".
This meant that they had to quickly move onto another prototype to address the shortcomings of the second.
"We then moved onto the third generational prototype where we re-engineered the pulse oximeter because we found out that oxygen as a parameter promotes liver-stage malaria infection."
The efficiency levels of the third generational prototype were quite high with a sensitivity of 60% but the "specificity was still low".
In this same period, Matibabu was selected among the very first startups to be incubated at the Kololo located ResilientAfrica Network - RAN.
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Moris says that this "this partnership created a strategic platform for the team" and they "managed to get introductions to new partnerships and heavily supported our development process."
Time to accelerate: 2016
Matibabu spent the bulk of 2016 in acceleration. The startup was accepted in Merck Accelerator, making it the first from Africa to have ever participated.
"In 2016, we were honored to be the first African startup to make it to the Merck Accelerator," Moris wrote.
"This helped us build capacity within the team to know more about structuring a company, legal processes of medical devices and gave the team access to the labs to do more trials with malaria experts."
They also managed to get "get mentors that helped us take big strides towards the new developments."
In the same year, they were accepted into Kenya's Villgro accelerator where two Ugandan startups - MamaOpe and ClinicPesa - were recently accepted. Moris says that Villgro is heavily focused on "business development and investment readiness."
"This has also helped us tap into Villgro’s networks where we have managed to get a few technical experts and VC’s as we investigate possible partnerships."
More awards: 2017
The startup got an extra award and once again was featured on an international stage. Last year, Matibabu was awarded the Aspirin Social Innovation Award by the Bayer Foundation.
The award recognizes social change-makers in the world. Or as Moris described it; "people with new answers for the challenges of society in areas connected to health and nutrition with international scope."
They had kicked off 2017 with a presence at the CES courtesy of TechCrunch. "In Jan 2017, we qualified for TechCrunch’s Hardware Battlefield," Moris pointed out. They went ahead and exhibited at CES under TechCrunch’s stall "becoming Uganda’s first Startup to ever exhibit at the CES".
There is another award that the startup won last year together with two other startups. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ ISHOW award.
It was also the same year that they applied to the Africa Prize for Engineering and got accepted in.
The story continues: 2018
Matibabu, together with four other Ugandan startups, was shortlisted for the Africa Prize for Engineering in November last year. An award they ended up winning last month despite having other noteworthy challengers like SafeMotos.
The figure wasn't their first to be won or their biggest cash prize yet. But, Moris Atwine told me that winning the prize has opened some doors that they couldn't get into earlier on.
Commenting about the prize, last year after being nominated, Brian Gitta - the CEO and Co-founder of Matibabu said that "the money will help Matibabu run clinical trials and improve the accuracy of its sensors."
But, before that - in March - it had been crowned the overall winner of the Pitch@Palace Africa 2.0 competition in the UK. It had also been selected to showcase at this year's Sankalp Summit in Nairobi.
A competition solution?
Despite all the achievements in form of competitions and awards won over the past half a decade, the startup is still in the prototyping phase with no product on the market. This is something that worries many.
Earlier this year at the Africa Blockchain Conference, Dr. Bitange Ndemo who's currently heading Kenya's Blockchain Taskforce pointed out that Ugandan startups have always won against their Kenyan counterparts in competitions.
Yet, Michael Niyitegeka, a former IT Lecturer and a director at the newly rebranded Clark University in Kampala, pointed out that Ugandan solutions stop at winning competitions. His concern was that many are driven by the cash prize and not taking the products to market.
Matibabu, being among the startups that have won the most awards and competitions, definitely comes to mind whenever one makes such a comment.
Moris says that for them, things are not good at all or will never be good until they go to market.
"They will never be good until we have an MVP, that’s according to me," Moris pointed out. Adding that "we are still far away from the Prize (the MVP) but since we know the promise, let’s face the price!"
Another thing is that there's a general lack of funding for startups in health. This is because it takes longer than other innovations to bring any return let alone go to market. That's perhaps why one has to resort to grants and competitions to survive.
"The challenge with health care is that funding for technology is still concentrated in donors, research and not as much from equity investment because of commercial viability," Dr. Davis Musinguzi told me earlier this year.
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For Moris and the team, this year's focus is continued product development. "We are heavily refining the product towards developing a market-ready version," he wrote.
Currently, they are carrying out clinical trials with Uganda's national referral hospital and hope that by close of the year, they have some significant results.
"We are working with Mulago National Referral Hospital to test and validate the reliability of the device used against the current microscopy and rapid diagnostic test methods among malaria patients and shall use the information obtained to refine and further improve the device and eventually roll it out to the market. I can't tell what we shall be able to achieve by the end of this year but let's keep our fingers crossed."
Spread too thin?
Another challenge Matibabu has to deal with is the team being pulled in different directions.
For example, Moris Atwine is working on BreastIT, EnStartup and Matibabu at ago. While the same applies to the rest of the team. They each have at least more than one venture they are handling at ago.
Additionally, there's a burden that comes with taking grants or competition money. Grant money is referred to many as free money but it usually isn't.
One is usually engulfed in endless reporting that is sometimes vague and unnecessary. On top of that, a startup is required to adjust its KPIs or vision to align with that of the donor or grant issuer. Imagine doing that for every competition, award.
Moving too slow?
When I had a conversation with Moris earlier this year, he was also worried about the media attention they have received. He thinks it could be a double-edged sword.
This is because there are other people that could be cloning their solution. These might move as fast as possible in their respective markets where Malaria is a problem too.
Case in point is India. Though the solution might not be exactly as Matibabu, it is worth paying attention too. Plus, it could be easier for them to secure funding for the respective prototypes and licenses needed to come to market.