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Frugal innovation is a term you may not be familiar with, and on first glance can be misunderstood. Essentially, it’s a creative problem-solving movement, rooted in the ability to generate better social and economic value with fewer resources. It emphasizes sustainability and the needs of marginalized populations, from design to implementation to distribution.

While some may consider frugality a crutch or even a curse, Benjamin Franklin predicted—more than 200 years ago—that it was critical to financial security: “Waste neither time nor money but make the best use of both. Without industry and frugality nothing will do, and with them everything.” We must apply this same mindset to accelerate research and education when developing medical prototype devices.

Western’s new Frugal Biomedical Innovations program is doing just that. And we’re further advancing this philosophy by addressing the “10/90 gap” in global health. Remarkably, less than

10 per cent of the world’s health-care resources are provided to 90 per cent of its population, many living outside major urban centres of developed countries. This inequity often translates into tragically adverse health outcomes seen in remote areas of Canada, and in low- resource settings around the globe.

Some assume frugal innovation implies a simplified, lower-quality version of an existing technology. On the contrary, we are co-developing new medical technologies that significantly improve the balance of performance and cost. We are investigating multiple strategies to achieve high-performing medical devices at lower cost, including 3-D-printed prosthetics to improve quality of life for disabled persons in Ethiopia and an open-source surgical fracture table for use by health-care providers in Uganda.

Frugal innovations must be user- friendly and easily maintained as many remote communities are serviced by generalist health-care providers, not specialists. Safety and effectiveness must meet the standards of any hospital in North America or Europe.

Collaborative partnerships with researchers, clinicians and end users in low-resource communities are crucial to the development of frugal innovations. We are working to establish partnerships with colleagues in northern Canada and Africa and hope to increase awareness of the benefits of frugal innovation, as a flexible and inclusive approach to increasing access to health care around the world.