On a recent Friday, several inventors gathered in downtown Washington with suitcases and coolers full of prototypes designed to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus.
A group of Columbia University undergraduates — juniors in biomedical engineering — had manufactured protective suits intended to keep health-care workers from overheating. Fairfax start-up Qore Performance repurposed its wearable cooling pack, originally produced for athletes, to fit into such protective suits.
About 25 teams were pitching their ideas to a panel of judges from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Defense Department as part of USAID’s “Ebola Grand Challenge” — a request for technology that could slow the deadly virus in exchange for a grant of up to $5 million. The agencies are searching in particular for a more advanced suit that can protect health-care workers from Ebola. Especially in the hot, humid climates in affected parts of West Africa, workers struggle to keep protective suits on for more than 40 minutes because of dehydration and overheating, and they are especially vulnerable to the virus at the moment when they remove the suit, according to USAID.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said that after he returned from overseeing the agency’s Ebola response in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, “it was clear to me if we had better tools and technology that were developed for this purpose, we could be even more efficient and effective.”
This is the latest of USAID’s grand challenges, which began in 2011. An earlier round sought solutions for maternal death during childbirth in developing countries, for instance. USAID is reviewing the submissions — about 1,250 so far — much faster than it did in previous challenges, to ensure that products to help the fight against Ebola are deployed in affected areas in the next few months, said Wendy Taylor, director of the agency’s Center for Accelerating Innovation. USAID plans to help selected teams create prototypes and mass-produce the designs.
Columbia students Ritish Patnaik, William Smith, Sidney Perkins and Joshua Bazile demonstrated their personal protective equipment (PPE) suit, which they estimated can be manufactured for about $2 to $4 apiece. The yellow coveralls have an internal cooling pouch, a straw connected to a water source and absorbent lining to soak up sweat. Perkins said he simulated humid conditions in his dorm room by boiling water in a tea kettle to test the suit.
Qore Performance pitched its cooling packs — worn as bicep sleeves, wrist sleeves or shorts — as inserts for PPE suits. The start-up’s “PlasmaQore” technology is designed to control body temperature and absorb heat at pulse points; individual packs are sold online for $20 to $40.
The team discovered USAID’s Ebola challenge online and submitted a proposal five days before the deadline. Although Qore had primarily targeted athletes and law enforcement agents, marketing the cooling packs to the medical community “may be the way we are able to bring our company to the world,” said co-founder J.D. Willcox.
Michael Script and Kristi Buckles Otto, co-founders of Fairfax-based technology company Inspire Living, demonstrated a watchlike device that, when placed on a patient’s thorax, can quickly measure vital signs. When placed in a PPE suit, the device could alert the wearer if they are dangerously close to overheating, reminding them to remove the suit. Depending on whether the device is connected to a wireless network, it can cost between $79 and $100. The devices were designed to detect pneumonia or other illnesses in children in developing countries; the company already supplies the units to international nongovernmental organizations.
As it decides which projects to support, USAID must balance “that we need tools now that we need to get out now, immediately, into the field, but also recognizing that this is an important opportunity to make those longer-term investments,” Taylor said. “Perhaps even in those bigger, high-impact areas now, so that when the next outbreak comes down the pike, we will have even better tools at our disposal.”
Technology alone can’t solve the Ebola crisis, USAID’s chief innovation officer, Steve VanRoekel — formerly the White House chief information officer — said in a keynote speech recently at a conference in Washington. Especially in affected parts of West Africa, cellphone coverage and power sources are spotty, and devices need to be able to withstand harsh climates and constant disinfecting, he said.
“We’re approaching technology in Ebola as, ‘What can technology do to accelerate and amplify the care we normally do, make things more efficient, help us make better and faster decisions to get our arms around this in a way we wouldn’t be able to without technology’s help,’ ” he said.