With the spread of Covid-19 in India, entrepreneurs and innovators have stepped up their game. Responding to the challenge, hundreds of health technology innovations — especially initiated by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) — were introduced in the past 18 months to help the nation in its war against the coronavirus.
Robots: a new normal
When Covid-19 started, the immediate response of Jayakrishnan T., CEO of Asimov Robotics, was to spread awareness among the masses. Asimov customised its humanoid robot, naming it SayaBot, and strategically placed it at entrances of office buildings and public places, with the robot holding a tray with face masks and sanitisers.
As Covid-19 exploded into a full-blown pandemic, the 49-year-old resident of Kochi in Kerala saw a surge in the need for these automated machines.
Soon, Asimov’s three-wheeled robots named KarmiBot were deployed in hospitals’ isolation wards to carry food and medicines for Covid patients.
“It eased the pressure on medical staff and took care of an additional concern of doctors and nurses getting infected due to their exposure to infected patients,” says Jayakrishnan. “While reducing community transmission, it ensured less use of PPE kits and other paraphernalia.”
Unlike humans, robots could be disinfected easily. Moving independently and using ultra-violet radiation, these were utilised to sanitise the premises. It proved a boon in helping to stop the virus from spreading in hospitals, offices, and public spaces, including airports and bus bays, the CEO says.
I feel this innovation will benefit immensely. Robots will provide highly personalised services and are likely to be the new normal across the world.
Asimov also developed robots resembling mini ambulances to control the spread of infection among patients under critical care. These were put in service for transporting microbiology samples and medical consumables from ICUs, laboratories, and pharmacies located within the hospital precincts.
The robots are currently operational at Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital’s Bengaluru branch. Asimov’s recent introduction is called Chhaya. The non-mobile robot that converses and expresses emotions can be utilised as a mental health companion for the aged, infirm, and mentally challenged people.
“I feel this innovation will benefit immensely. Robots such as this will provide highly personalised services and are likely to be the new normal across the world,” Jayakrishnan adds.
Century-old event sparks creativity
Two thousand kilometres away from India’s coastal state Kerala, Kaif Ali, a student of architecture at New Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia University, foresaw the immense challenges the virus had created. He promptly put his architectural studies to good use.
Modifying design and construction ideas with unique innovations, 20-year old Ali formulated Space Era — a standard space developed for the pandemic era and beyond.
The prototype, designed out of polyurethane foam (PUF) and shipping containers, tackles the issue of home quarantine.
Focusing on the concern that during home quarantine there’s always the probability of a person infecting other family members, he created a transitional shelter space for Covid patients using a modular set-up.
“The prototype, designed out of polyurethane foam (PUF) or prefabricated sandwich panels and shipping containers, tackles the issue of home quarantine that’s not possible for a large population worldwide,” Ali says.
The model comprises portable quarantine/vaccination facilities, medical supply units, ICU wards, general wards, parking areas, and cabins with proper ventilation. While ensuring social distancing norms in design strategies, it is both affordable and durable and can be constructed and dismantled in a short span.
“The innovation had its inspiration from a century-old event. During the 1918 Spanish flu, people were quarantined in mass shelters and on ships. Thus, Space Era has been formulated not only with pandemics in mind, but it can also function as a housing option for refugees, migrants, and healthcare workers across the world,” the innovator explains.
Significantly, the model fulfils the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including good health and well-being; industry, innovation, and infrastructure; and sustainable cities and communities.
Ali’s design has received sponsorship from Nigeria to implement the idea as low-cost housing units for residents. Also, medical facilities using shipping containers are being created in the West African country.
He has bagged several awards for this model, including the Indian Young Covid-19 Innovator, Diana Award from the Queen’s Royal Society, London, UK, and the EY (Ernst & Young) Scholarship.
Face mask that amplifies the voice
Another youngster, based in Thrissur, Kerala, was equally affected by the situation arising out of the pandemic.
Observing his doctor parents struggling to communicate with patients while wearing a face mask, 19-year old Kevin Jacob innovated a device that ensured speech was not fuzzy on wearing a face mask.
The B. Tech. first-year student from Thrissur’s Government Engineering College, says, “The onset of the pandemic confirmed that face masks were to become an integral part of our existence. My primary concern was for my mother Dr Jyoti Mary and father Dr Senjoy K. C., as both worked for hours wearing a multi-layered mask and a face shield.
“I also witnessed people pulling down their masks to speak as it muffles the speech and the other person is not able to follow what is being said. This defeats the entire purpose of wearing a protective covering.”
I tested the prototype with the help of my parents. It was perfected after a trial-and-error method.
Taking advantage of his engineering skills, Jacob designed an amplifier weighing around 25g. It was fixed on to the masks and face shields. “I tested the prototype with the help of my parents. It was perfected after a trial-and-error method,” he explains.
Still, not taking it at face value, Jacob produced a few more sets, offering those to other doctors and healthcare providers. Everyone conceded they no more had to strain to speak.
The masks were a hit and demand for his creation increased.
The masks with the microphone can be worn for three to four hours at a stretch. It takes about 45 minutes to fully charge the amplifier using a micro-USB cable.
“With the support of strong magnets, the mic is attached to the mask. For those wearing a face shield, the mic is fixed on the mask, while the amplifier can be set over the face shield/mask/shirt collar — as per the user’s comfort.”
Jacob hopes to transfer the technology to an entrepreneur, so that it is manufactured on a larger scale.
Addressing ventilator shortages
When the second wave of Covid-19 hit India, the country was shaken due to an acute shortage of ventilators. Scurrying to fill the gap, many establishments worked 24x7 to increase production to provide succour to people.
Revolutionising the healthcare system, a Noida, Uttar Pradesh-based start-up AgVa Healthcare manufactured a low-cost portable ventilator.
Prof. Diwakar Vaish, Director of AgVa, says, “Coronavirus causes severe lower respiratory tract infection and patients with Covid-19 often require ventilator support. No one had foreseen such a scenario and the sudden spurt in cases has crippled the medical system.”
Costing between $2,000 and $2,500, the customised ventilator — weighing only 3kg — has many advanced features.
A robotic scientist turned entrepreneur, Prof. Vaish changed the narrative by modifying the traditional bulky units into portable machines that could be carried home with ease.
He also ramped up its production and supply to meet the booming demand.
“From manufacturing 500 ventilator units in a month, we increased the capacity to 15,000 a month,” says the 29-year-old scientist.
“Costing between $2,000 (Dh7,345) and $2,500, the customised ventilator — weighing only 3kg — has many advanced features. For instance: it runs on room air without the need of compressed medical air and has a simple operating mechanism. With a touchscreen interface, it does not require technical expertise to run and is easily operational by using an android-powered phone,” Prof. Vaish explains.
The simple plug-and-use portable ventilator can run on both 12-volt and 220-volt power inlets used in ambulances.
While AgVa faced logjams amid the ongoing pandemic, it refused to let negativity sink in or let it hamper the streaming chain.
“In fact, despite the challenges, we increased our manpower. Working in unison with medical experts, we were able to strengthen the hands of the healthcare staff,” says Prof. Vaish.
AgVa’s ventilators continue to be used in hospitals in Delhi, NCR, Maharashtra, and many tier-II and tier-III cities. ■