Ubenwa, the brainchild of Nigeria’s Charles Onu, has raised a $2.3 million pre-seed financing to detect the normality of a baby’s cry. The Canada-based medtech company uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track the frequency of cries and this funding will further its private beta testing. Ubenwa (an Igbo term for ‘the cry of a baby’) wants to be the go-to app for parents regarding the variations of the cries of their infants.
TechCrunch reported that the idea for an audio biometric startup was planted in Charles Onu’s mind when his cousin who was born with birth asphyxia later developed a hearing condition. It was however at a global non-profit organization, ENACTUS, that Onu finally understood perinatal asphyxia.
Asphyxia refers to a deficiency in oxygen which could lead to suffocation, strangulation or death. According to a report by BioMed Central, birth asphyxia is the fifth largest cause of under-five child deaths (8.5%), after pneumonia, diarrhoea, neonatal infections and complications of preterm birth. Birth asphyxia also accounts for an estimated 0.92 million neonatal deaths annually.
As infants are wont to do, they resort to crying that leaves parents and even clinicians unable to diagnose the source of discomfort.
Ubenwa uses AI to analyse cry signals. But building a technology for infants based on cries is no easy undertaking. Ubenwa claims to have developed accurate algorithms for cry activity tracking, acoustic biomarker detection and anomaly prediction, turning infant cries into clinically-relevant insights and potential diagnoses. The company’s first pilot on detecting neurological injury due to birth asphyxia demonstrated about 40% improvement over APGAR scoring, the most common physical exam at birth.
“Ubenwa is building a diagnostic tool that understands when a baby’s cry is actually a cry for medical attention,” said Charles Onu, CEO and Co-founder of Ubenwa.
“Ultimately, our goal is to be a translator for baby cry sounds, providing a non-invasive way to monitor medical conditions everywhere you find a baby: delivery rooms, neonatal and pediatric intensive care units, nurseries, and in the home,” he confirmed.
Ubenwa will now seek the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to launch its app.
Meet the founders
Charles Onu originally studied computer engineering from the Federal University of Technology, Owerri but had a passion for medicine. It was when he went to Montréal to study for his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in computer science at McGill University that he met Innocent Udeogu and Samantha Latremouille. Together, they founded Ubenwa in 2019.
A product of Mila – a Canadian AI research institute-, the platform has established a network among select medical facilities, across 3 countries. Ubenwa is currently partnering with Enugu State University Teaching Hospital and Rivers State Teaching Hospital (both in Nigeria) and Santa Casa de Misericordia in Brazil and Montréal Children’s Hospital in Canada.
The pre-seed financing was led by AI-focused Radical Ventures and AI pioneer at Mila, Yoshua Bengio. Participating also in the round was a returning investor, AIX Ventures, a fund co-founded by AI researchers and entrepreneurs Pieter Abbeel and Richard Socher, and Google Brain’s Hugo Larochelle and Marc Bellemare.
What they are saying:
“AI is well-suited to deriving insights from the sound signature of an infant cry,” said Yoshua Ben.
“Charles Onu’s leading research into identifying biomarkers in baby cry sounds offers the promise of unlocking our understanding of what’s behind a baby’s cry,” he added.